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
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
We’re all facing extraordinary circumstances at the moment and at Slightly Foxed we have you, and the huge importance of books to help us through difficult times, very much in mind. Now restrictions are tightening, so we’ve made the decision to close the office from Wednesday 25 March for the next few weeks. Gail and Hazel will be keeping in touch with you by newsletter to let you know what’s going on, and we’ll be fulfilling your orders again as soon as things start to ease.
As everyone knows, the world divides between those who love Tintin and those who prefer Asterix. I’m in the latter camp so I was soon off to the shelves of children’s books to find Asterix in Britain and re-enter the world of the fierce little Gaul, Obelix and their British cousin Anticlimax as they resist the Romans. Whenever I reread an Asterix book I’m always reminded that the English translations were done by Anthea Bell, daughter of Adrian Bell whose memoirs ‒ Corduroy, Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree ‒ we’ve reissued as Slightly Foxed Editions. What a talented family they were.
Emerging from the miasma of winter colds and flu that hung over the office – even Pugwash was under the weather – we were immensely cheered by the splendid selection of Christmas cards you sent us, many of them fox-related. We enjoy all your letters and postcards too. Thank you so much. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: our contact with you, our subscribers, is one of the great pleasures of life at Slightly Foxed.
Well, it’s Christmas again. We’re glad to report that as the year ends Slightly Foxed is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with subscriptions coming in, the direct debit system up and running, and an excellent response to our modest forays into merchandizing.
No doubt you’ve noticed, as we have, how smartly the press has jumped on to the ecological bandwagon. Over the past twelve months we’ve received special ‘green’ issues of various magazines, encouraging us to inspect our supermarket fruit and veg for country of origin, buy a wormery and avoid flying if at all possible.
With mist obscuring the dome of St Paul’s and winter closing in, it seems a long time since we were driving through lush, sunlit Devon lanes to the launch of the Autumn issue at the (tiny) Big Red Sofa bookshop in Chagford, right on the edge of Dartmoor. As always it was a convivial get-together, with subscribers coming from as far away as Exmouth, and keen interest taken from the bookshop regulars in Slightly Foxed. This beautiful area, where moor and countryside meet, is home territory to Gail. Her family have long connections with it, and our visit to Devon was combined with a splendid housewarming for the eco-friendly house that she and her husband have dreamed about for years and which is now finally finished, down to the last slab of granite and foot of grass roof. However, don’t panic. Gail, like the rest of us, is still based in London, and SF continues exactly as before.
Time and tide, as they say, wait for no man, and the past few months have seen some significant changes in the office of Slightly Foxed.
Our marketing manager Kathleen, who did wonderful work in getting copies of SF into bookshops when we were starting out, has just moved, with her two small children and her designer husband James (who draws the foxes which often appear on our covers), to become Events Manager at Robert Topping’s new bookshop in Bath. We miss her greatly, but we keep in close touch (anyone who’s ever been part of Slightly Foxed still continues, somehow, to be ‘on the strength’) and we’ll be launching our Winter issue at the Bath bookshop.
Well, Spring again, and with it the start of a fresh venture. As we mentioned in the last issue, for some time now we’ve been becoming increasingly aware of the number of excellent books that have been allowed to slip out of print – in particular those fascinating memoirs and personal accounts that bring alive a particular moment or place, that allow you into someone else’s world and make you feel you have actually known the writer. Often these books light up a period in a way that no history book can. So it seemed to us to make sense to reprint some of them. From now on with each issue of Slightly Foxed we’ll be offering a new title, with a piece to introduce it in the issue itself.
One of the things we’ve learned during the four plus years we’ve been going is that you, our subscribers, are the kind of people who like to keep in touch. You write to us (such heart-warming letters); if you happen to be in London you visit (you’re always welcome – apart from the pleasure of seeing you, it gives us an excuse to drag ourselves away from the computer); and we often enjoy a chat with those of you who phone us when the time comes to renew.
The Biographers’ Club is now accepting submissions for The Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2020. This year’s judges are Rupert Christiansen, Selina Hastings and Alexander Masters.
For some months now, at our regular get-togethers, the five of us have been sitting round the table, chewing our pens and agonizing over the question: Is it time to put the price of Slightly Foxed up? We’ve held it for nearly five years – since we started in fact – and during that time the cost of postage has risen four times and the price of paper has risen twice, not to mention all the usual running costs of the office. (Even Pugwash’s running costs have risen steeply as he’s a very wobbly old dog now, rather like Thurber’s dog Muggs, who would wander unnervingly about ‘like Hamlet following his father’s ghost’.) Needless to say, we’ve done everything we can to keep costs down – including no staff pay-rises – but those who advise us on our finances have been murmuring with ever-growing insistence about the need to increase our price and urging us to do so.
This issue marks a bit of a celebration for us – Slightly Foxed’s fifth we birthday. It seems no time ago – certainly not twenty issues – that we we’re sitting round the kitchen table, arguing about a title, discussing printers and finances and page designs and paper thicknesses, and how to get the word out about a new quarterly that — let’s be frank — a lot of people felt couldn’t possibly work.
It’s bitterly cold today – frost on the London roofs, and the spires of the City churches rising sharp and white against an ice-blue sky. For a lot of us it feels internally pretty cold too. Talk in the news of worse economic times to come, global warming, wars across the world. One could get pretty depressed . . .
The Slightly Foxed office hasn’t changed much over the years, apart from the fact that, as we’ve already mentioned, it’s got more crowded, what with the increasing number of back issues and the new Slightly Foxed Editions. This is of course especially true when we’ve just had a delivery from our printers, Smith Settle, which arrives via their driver, Brian, who sets off from Yorkshire in the dark hours and arrives in London in time for an early cup of tea.
The summer seems to have flown by, with nothing more dramatic to report from the Slightly Foxed office than the theft of Jennie’s bike (two sturdy locks and all – that’s London for you) and the small dramas surrounding the presence of Chudleigh, our now not-so-new puppy who, though growing up fast, is still inclined to exercise his jaws on paper, pens, clothing, handbags and upholstery.
Well. We’re sitting here quivering slightly because we’ve done something rather rash. We’ve bought a second-hand bookshop. Actually, we’re pretty excited about it. Like many good things, it came to us in a serendipitous way. Not many months ago word reached us that Nick Dennys, the owner of the Gloucester Road Bookshop (123 Gloucester Road, London SW7) was looking for someone sympathetic to buy the business. The bearer of the news wondered if we might be interested.
Now the Christmas rush is over and spring is in the air, it’s all paint charts and carpet samples at Slightly Foxed. The bookshop facelift is under way, and after dealing with urgent matters like leaks and cracks – it’s an old building and the storeroom and office space run under the pavement, with all that that implies – we’re on to the fun part now. We’re (slightly) changing the name to ‘Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road’ – look out for the foxy sign! In corporate-speak it would probably be called ‘rebranding’, but as you know, we’re anything but corporate, and in any case we don’t want to change the shop’s essential welcoming character, which its regulars value so much.
Our bookshop is truly up and running now under its new banner ‘Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road’. Renovations have been modest – fresh paint, new carpet, some moveable shelving to allow us to create space for launch parties and events and, as a finishing touch, a traditional pub-style hanging sign featuring the fox. Frankly, we’re so thrilled with it it’s hard for us to keep away, and we do hope that any of you visiting London will drop in there too, to have a browse and meet Tony and the rest of the staff. You’ll find a bookshop leaflet with more details in this issue.
Autumn. Season of mists . . . Chudleigh the office dog is getting his winter coat and we’re thinking of turning on the heating. Traditionally autumn is also one of the busiest publishing seasons when firms launch their ‘big’ books in time for the Christmas market, and review pages and bookshop displays expand.
Predictably perhaps, given the season, it’s all go here at Slightly Foxed, what with dispatching the new book bags (for which there’s been a gratifying demand – hurry while stocks last!), taking orders and sending off copies of the quarterly to new subscribers. Then, of course, there’s fulfilling requests for Slightly Foxed Editions, forwarding orders for slipcases (also very popular at this time of year), chatting on the phone to those of you who ring us with enquiries and suggestions (always welcome), not to mention all the stuffing and franking of envelopes that goes with a small business like ours.
‘Spring, the sweet spring . . .’ The flower shop round the corner from Slightly Foxed is full of daffodils and hyacinths now, and from our window the City spires are standing out sharply against a pale blue sky. It feels as if everything is drawing breath after the long cold winter, and after a busy season we’re drawing breath too.
At this time of year, one can’t help noticing, the population of London changes. In the centre of town the buses and tubes are filled with overseas visitors and a Babel of foreign voices. But the narrow streets around us in Clerkenwell are strangely quiet, emptied of the crowds of workers who normally fill the local pubs and wine bars. It feels as if the clocks have gone back fifty years.
There’s an invigorating sharpness in the air now, that frosty tang that brings with it thoughts of country walks, winter fires, evenings with a good book, the possibilities of a new term. And with that, we can’t resist straightaway mentioning Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, the latest of our Slightly Foxed Editions (see p. 12), and possibly the funniest we’ve published so far.
We feel we’ve come to know so many of you as friends from your letters, emails and phone calls, and if there was ever a time for friends to keep in touch, it’s surely now. So here goes. Gail is writing from her West Country house on the edge of Dartmoor while Hazel is holed up at home in Highbury, North London.
We’re sitting here in the office today, looking out at the leaden sky and wondering what next year’s going to be like. It’s rather a ruminative time we find, these last dark months before Christmas. One thing we do know, and that is that we’re extremely fortunate to have such a loyal body of subscribers. Some of you have been with us from the very beginning and have stuck with us ‘through thin and thin’ as the late publisher Anthony Blond once succinctly put it. We’d like you to know how grateful we are for your support – for your enthusiastic letters, encouraging phone calls, for spreading the word about Slightly Foxed – and of course for your renewed subscriptions.
Now the year has turned and spring bulbs are bravely poking up in Clerkenwell window-boxes, we’re looking forward hopefully, as well as looking back thoughtfully over the events of the past year, which was quite an adventurous one for SF.
Summer: the season of literary festivals, and Slightly Foxed is on the road. Our travels began early with an appearance, with author and contributor Penelope Lively, at the Words by the Water Festival in Cumbria in early March. Later that month we were at Christ Church, Oxford, for the first in what we hope will be a regular series of Slightly Foxed talks on forgotten authors at the Oxford Literary Festival. This year the philosopher and critic John Gray delivered a brilliant and entertaining talk on the work of John Cowper Powys, arising from the piece he wrote in our spring issue, neatly placing Powys as ‘an outdoor Proust’. On 14 June we’ll be launching the summer issue at Mr B’s cosy and very individual bookshop in Bath. And on Sunday 8 July we’ll be appearing at the West Meon Literary Festival in Hampshire with our contributor and prize-winning biographer Maggie Fergusson.
One of the most enjoyable things we do at Slightly Foxed – and there are many – is the commissioning of our covers. People often say they wish they could have reproductions of them, and so, in the spring, Alarys did some research, and we went off to visit a couple of small, environmentally friendly firms. One, in Lincolnshire, has now produced a lovely Slightly Foxed tea-towel for us in hard-wearing unbleached cotton decorated with one of our most cheerful spring covers, and the other, in Berkshire, a mixed pack of four fine-quality cards of the most popular ones – two with a spring and summer and two with a winter theme.
It is at times like these that good reading really is essential in providing both comfort and distraction. We’ve been receiving many heartening messages from all over the world about the soothing effects of reading Slightly Foxed and we are very grateful for your continued support.
It seems, as they say, only yesterday that we were telling you Slightly Foxed would be moving – in fact it was in 2004 that we moved from our original ‘office’ round the kitchen table of Gail’s home in Canonbury to the family’s new home in Clerkenwell. For eight years we roosted gratefully at Dickinson Court, gradually expanding, like the proverbial cuckoo, until we’d virtually taken over; turning the spare room into a post room, filling every available alcove with back issues and filing trays, and the hall with bicycles and parcels of books.
We’re now comfortably settled at our new home in Hoxton Square which, being a proper office rather than part of a flat, is far more spacious and functional than Brewhouse Yard. We do miss the spectacular view we had there of London’s domes and towers rising against the sky behind St Paul’s, but we’re enjoying the edgy inner city feel of Hoxton with its little specialist bookshops, vegetarian restaurants and bicycles chained to the railings among the plane trees and scruffy city pigeons. Thank you so much, all of you who sent us good wishes for the move and appreciative Christmas cards. We were extremely touched to receive them.
We thought it might be cheering for all of us in these unusual and unpredictable times if we kept in touch with you via a weekly diary. It won’t be a work of literature, and it won’t be simply, or even mostly, about books, but just a way of sharing with you, wherever you are in the world, how the two of us are living our day-to-day lives in very different parts of England. We feel we’ve come to know so many of you as friends from your letters, emails and phone calls, and if there was ever a time for friends to keep in touch, it’s surely now. So here goes. Gail is writing from her West Country house on the edge of Dartmoor while Hazel is holed up at home in Highbury, North London.
Well, summer’s here – at last. There are still plenty of people about in Hoxton Square, but it won’t be long before the city starts to empty out and that particular summer quiet descends which, if you’re still working, makes you feel both grateful and wistful at the same time.
The summer has sped by and we’ve been travelling, giving talks about Slightly Foxed (with the essential tea and cakes) at the kind of small local festivals that often seem to have more meaning than the bigger events. They’re a great opportunity for us to meet local subscribers and see some very beautiful parts of the country. On 20 September we’ll be in another lovely place, Much Wenlock in Shropshire, where we’ll be talking at Wenlock Books.
This fortieth issue is a very special one for us. It marks the beginning of our anniversary year – ten years since we came up with the idea for Slightly Foxed and tentatively put together our first issue. They’re years in which we’ve got to know some of the most likeable and entertaining people – both subscribers and contributors – enjoyed some of the best laughs, been introduced to some of the best books, and had some of the most varied (and sometimes eccentric) experiences. During those years children have married and grandchildren have been born, Slightly Foxed has grown, and we’ve been joined by some exceptionally nice, clever and hardworking young members of staff. We can only say thank you to the Fox and to all of you who’ve supported us for giving us some of the happiest years of our working lives.
As we mentioned in the last issue, we’re marking our tenth anniversary this year in various ways, but perhaps most importantly with the publication of a very unusual little book. It’s called Slightly Famous People’s Foxes and proceeds from the sale will go to buy books for the Hospital School at Great Ormond Street, which enables children to continue their education while they are there. These won’t be textbooks but books to read for pleasure – most of us probably know how just the right book can ease a stay in hospital, especially for children who may be in isolation or having long and painful treatments. It’s a cause close to our hearts, and we’d be delighted if you felt able to give it your support. The book costs a very affordable £5, and you’ll find a leaflet and an order form enclosed with this issue.
With travel in the air, summer’s a time when we think particularly of all those subscribers who read their copies of Slightly Foxed in farflung places. We have subscribers in 60 countries now, and in this tenth anniversary year we’d like to say thank you once again to all of you, at home and abroad, for supporting us, and particularly to those of you who have stuck with us through – as the late publisher Antony Blond once memorably put it – thin and thin. We had an excellent anniversary party – at the Art Workers’ Guild in Bloomsbury, already familiar to some of you from Readers’ Day. Speeches were made, glasses were raised, and Slightly Famous People’s Foxes, the little book we’re publishing in aid of the Children’s Hospital School at Great Ormond Street, was successfully launched.
Our anniversary year is almost over, and it’s been marked by many good things – not least the installation of a new kitchen area in the office by our very efficient and cheerful builder Pzremek. Now that the leaves are turning in the square and the air is getting chilly, it’s a big bonus at lunchtime to have an oven that actually works!
Another year almost gone. The lights are going on early now in Hoxton Square, and on misty evenings there’s a sense of a ghostly earlier London hovering just out of reach, while only a few hundred yards away down Old Street huge shiny office blocks are rising to create a new ‘Tech City’. It’s making us feel a bit ruminative. Thanks to Jennie and all the young staff, we’re keeping up with and making good use of all the new technology, but we do also cling to what might be called ‘old-fashioned’ values – giving a really prompt and personal service to readers, keeping up our production standards, not cutting corners on writing and editing, and treating our suppliers and contributors decently. Thanks to you we’ve survived the recession, but things are still very tough for small businesses like Slightly Foxed, and our values do come at a cost.
Intimations of spring at last! The days are lengthening, watery spring sunlight is filtering through the bare trees in the square, there’s a jug of daffodils on the windowsill, and the tatty old London pigeons are billing and cooing on the parapet outside the office.
Now the long summer days are here we like to get out of the city, to meet subscribers and get to know some of the many independent local bookshops which, in spite of difficult times, are still very much alive and kicking. On 11 June we’ll be in Suffolk at just such a shop, Harris & Harris in the pretty old wool town of Clare, to launch the summer issue and the latest of the Slightly Foxed Editions, Adrian Bell’s Silver Ley (see p.13).
It’s hard to believe autumn is here already. But the days are shortening, the air is growing brisker, and gradually the city is coming to life again as people trickle back after the long summer break. London is back in business, and it’s all go here in the Slightly Foxed office, with the latest of the Slightly Foxed Editions and Slightly Foxed Cubs arriving from the printers, and some new projects afoot.
By now most of us have probably begun the often rather agonized run-up to Christmas – the worry about what to buy for whom and where to find it. For Slightly Foxed readers, we suspect books are likely to feature somewhere in that list. Quite recently we read a piece by The Times columnist Jenni Russell bemoaning the fact that so many disappointing books by well-known writers are ludicrously overpromoted these days. Publishing, she wrote, ‘doesn’t prioritize what’s good, it prioritizes what’s new’.
As everyone who lives here knows, spring in London doesn’t just signal daffodils in window boxes and budding trees in squares. It signals building projects. The whole city seems to be in a state of upheaval – ‘streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up . . . piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks’. That sounds like today, but in fact it’s Dickens in Dombey and Son describing the coming of the railway to Camden Town. London is forever changing and it’s certainly doing so now around the Slightly Foxed office in Hoxton Square – still fortunately a small haven of quiet, though only a few minutes’ walk from the gleaming office blocks of the new ‘Tech City’ rising around Old Street tube station.
We had quite a celebration for our tenth anniversary in 2014 and now this summer we’ve reached what feels to us like another significant milestone – our 50th issue. You could say Slightly Foxed has reached middle age, but it still has a spring in its step and we enjoy putting it together as much now as we did when four of us sat round the kitchen table (one of us holding a baby who is now at secondary school) and planned the first issue. One of our somewhat irrational fears at the time was that we might run out of books to write about, and people to write about them, but the reverse has been the case. We know from the steady stream of suggestions arriving from contributors inside and outside the literary world that there are still countless unusual and fascinating books to discover. That’s another enjoyable aspect of editing SF: the proof, if one were needed, that you don’t have to be a ‘writer’ to be able to write.
After the events of the past few months, we must admit that, though extremely cheerful and optimistic, we’re also feeling a bit ruminative here in the office. Somehow the timeless and civilizing things we hope Slightly Foxed stands for seem more important than ever at a moment of change like this. We hope, anyway, that with the arrival of this autumn issue you can relax, draw the curtains – actual or metaphorical – and, as one of our American readers recently described it, ‘breathe a sigh of relief and slip into a world of thoughtfulness and good humor’.
The lights in the Slightly Foxed office are staying on a little later now in the run-up to Christmas. Anna, Olivia, Katy and Hattie, our newest member of staff, have been in overdrive, dealing with subscriptions, purchases and enquiries while Stanley, the new Slightly Foxed puppy, who has put poor Chudleigh’s nose terribly out of joint, snuffles around among piles of brown paper parcels containing the latest of the Slightly Foxed Editions. As always it’s hard to believe another year is almost over and a new one’s about to start.
Spring, and it’s precisely thirteen years since the first issue of Slightly Foxed appeared. Then of course we had no idea of what SF would become – more of a friendly worldwide fellowship of readers than simply a magazine. Many of you have been with us from that first issue, and our subscription renewal rate is unusually and cheeringly high. As we frequently tell you, it’s your loyalty and enthusiasm that keep us going, and this year we’ve decided to express our appreciation to you in a more concrete way.
The trees are in full deep green leaf now, making a small oasis of Hoxton Square, while not fifty yards away the traffic roars past along Old Street. New regulations to cut down air pollution in London are on the way we learn, but now the fumes hang heavily in the summer air as we make for the office, dodging people coming in the other direction who seem to be talking to themselves but are actually on their mobile phones. As Jane Austen’s great hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse observes, ‘Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.’ For many of us these days it’s a hurrying, worrying world.
News came recently that sales of printed books have grown for the first time in four years while sales of ebooks have declined. ‘It would appear that there remains a special place in the consumer’s heart for the aesthetic pleasure that printed books can bring’ the chief executive of the Publishers’ Association is quoted as saying.
From the start, we were keen that Slightly Foxed should feature not only contributors familiar from other book pages but also the voices of people who could write but who didn’t think of themselves as writers – people outside the literary world, who had other equally interesting kinds of experience, and for whom the written word was just as important. We’ve come to the conclusion that this describes many of our readers, judging from your sparky entries to the writers’ competitions we’ve run in the past. So, now the dark evenings have closed in again, we think it’s a good time to run another one.
So, spring again, and it seems a good moment to report on what might be called the greening of Slightly Foxed. We’ve always been keen to be green and during the past year we’ve worked hard at it, replacing our plastic-lined padded envelopes with more eco-friendly cardboard packaging and looking into switching our office paper to a more environmentally friendly brand called Cool Earth.
For some months now the office in Hoxton Square has been ringing to the sounds of hammering, banging, drilling, and tools dropping on to scaffolding, and we’ve often struggled to hear one another speak. If you build an extension in London today it can usually only go up or down, and our freeholder is adding an extra couple of storeys. We’re told the agony is nearly over and now it’s summer we’re looking forward to coming out of forced hibernation and opening the windows.
‘For weeks the trees had been heavy-laden with tired green leaves,’ writes BB when autumn arrives in Brendon Chase, ‘but now! What glory! What a colour ran riot in the underwood, how sweet and keen became the morning air.’ This is the season when ‘a new zest for living stirs within the blood, [and] adventure beckons in every yellowing leaf’. And sure enough, here at Hoxton Square, we’re in a decidedly adventurous mood.
Here in the office, summer is when we try to relax a little, draw breath and catch up with the things for which there isn’t normally time. This year Jennie and Anna are further improving the website and putting on to the index our entire archive of contributions to past issues, so if you are a subscriber, any piece we’ve ever published will soon be available for you to read. Meantime we two will be settling down to some quiet reading in our search for unusual and outstanding memoirs to add to the list of Slightly Foxed Editions. We always welcome your suggestions, so if you have a favourite memoir that is now largely unavailable, do get in touch. There are plenty of forgotten memoirs out there we find, but few have that indefinable voice that makes them unique, and it’s a real joy when we come across one.
September has crept up on us; it won’t be long before we’re thinking about Christmas (our new festive foxed card, the fifth in the series, is now out) and here in the office there’s that familiar, excited beginning of-term feeling of things about to happen.
Was there ever a moment when a good book seemed more essential? And not just because Christmas and the annual search for presents has come round again. Comfort, instruction, amusement, escape, a new perspective – whatever it is you’re looking for as a steadier in unnerving times, it’s all there in books.
It’s spring again, and a bit of news that feels cheering in today’s disordered world reaches us via an unsolicited email from ‘the world’s leading market intelligence agency’. It seems that the number of Brits who bought a print book was up last year from 51 per cent in 2018 to 56 per cent. The main reason people gave was that they prefer physical books to reading on devices. E-books certainly have their uses, but there are very particular experiences attached to the reading of a physical book, particularly a second-hand one – its look, its feel, its smell, its history as evidenced by the clues left on it and in it by previous owners. Every physical book, like a person, tells a story of its own in a way no digital book can, however convenient.
Dame Margaret Drabble joins us at the Slightly Foxed table as we celebrate her life in writing. From taking up her pen in the 1960s as a young mother alone in her kitchen to feeling part of a movement with Nell Dunn, Margaret Forster and Edna O’Brien, to editing The Oxford Companion to English Literature without the help of a computer and eschewing the Booker Prize, Margaret Drabble sees writing as both an illness and a trade, finding black humour in ageing and joy in jigsaw puzzles along the way. And we uncover whatever happened to the elusive novelist Elizabeth Jenkins in this month’s reading from the magazine’s archives.
Hilary Mantel has said that this powerful and haunting book came about by accident. She never intended to write a memoir, but the sale of a much-loved cottage in Norfolk prompted her to write about the death of her stepfather, and from there ‘the whole story of my life began to unravel’. It is a story of ‘wraiths and phantoms’, a story not easy to forget. Giving up the Ghost is a compulsively readable and ultimately optimistic account of what made Hilary Mantel the writer she is, full of courage, insight and wry humour.
‘There could be no grander narrative than the story of Sultan Saladin and his counter-Crusade. Jonathan Phillips’s thoroughly absorbing biography takes on a period and an individual of daunting complexity and strangeness, weaving a tale worthy of a leader who proved inspirational to both East and West. The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin is grippingly written, wonderfully researched, and most of all, very relevant to today . . . Jonathan Phillips is a significant talent.’
We are delighted to announce that the winner of the Biographers’ Club Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2019 is Jonathan Phillips for The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin.
With Mothering Sunday approaching we thought our readers might appreciate a few bookish present ideas – for a mother, a fellow booklover or yourself – beginning with the latest in our series of limited-edition cloth-bound pocket hardbacks: Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly’s To War with Whitaker.
Sam Read Bookseller is a small independent bookshop situated in the heart of the Lake District in Grasmere, Cumbria. William Wordsworth lived in Grasmere for many years and called it ‘the loveliest spot that man hath ever found’. The same can be said of the bookshop itself. We were delighted to learn more about life at Sam Read’s from bookshop owner Elaine Nelson and add to our reading lists thanks to recommendations from her fellow booksellers.
There’s a picture in The Third Ladybird Book of Nursery Rhymes of a small, nervous boy in knickerbockers appearing before a man of authority: ‘I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,/ The reason why, I cannot tell./ But this I know and know full well,/ I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.’ It’s a curious little thing, but somehow very pleasing. It rhymes, there’s a clear, easy rhythm behind the words and we’re familiar with the sentiment. In short, it’s a typical nursery rhyme.
My grandparents’ books were ranged in a deep alcove by the fireplace, a shadowy and mysterious recess that invited exploration. During visits in school holidays, I read my way through those faded hardbacks and ever afterwards associated their authors with the thrill of exploring that dark corner. The pleasurably fusty smell of the pages seemed to me the smell of an epoch, of the generation of my grandparents, born in the 1890s. Over the years I made the acquaintance of the writers they had grown up with – Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, Hugh Walpole.
I enjoy reading thrillers. I might like to claim that literary fiction is my constant companion, but for most of the time it isn’t – the novels that Graham Greene described as his ‘entertainments’ give me far greater pleasure than his more serious books. Similarly, when my work as a historian took me to the period between the First and Second World Wars I found that Eric Ambler’s thrillers, written at the time, effectively captured the contemporary atmosphere, just as do Alan Furst’s more recent books. Both explore the impact of the interwar struggle between fascism, communism and democracy on innocent individuals, men who find their lives tossed about on the great waves of history. But always men. What about the women?
It is a typical winter night on California’s central coast: the rain has been drumming on the roof, the dogs, happy and dry, are curled up in their beds, and my wife and I are in our bed, propped up on a pile of pillows, books in hand. I’m attempting with mixed success not to shake the bed with repressed laughter brought on by P. G. Wodehouse. My wife, having put aside the ever-present New Yorker magazine, is giving her undivided attention to The Outermost House by Henry Beston.
I am a book annotator. Of course I never write in the margins of library books, and I wouldn’t dream of marking books lent by a well-meaning friend: I’m a book annotator, not a sociopath. But a pencilled note or punctuation mark in the margin of my own books is a form of ownership, a tiny graphite beacon for future browsing and (on occasion) an aid to concentration. Most of these notes are unobtrusive – a line here, an asterisk there – but there is one book that I own which is annotated to the point of deranged excess: the Penguin Classic by Gregory of Tours, entitled The History of the Franks and translated by Lewis Thorpe.
We’re delighted to let you know that the Spring issue of Slightly Foxed (No. 65) left the printing press at Smith Settle yesterday and will start to arrive with readers in the UK from today and elsewhere over the next few weeks. It ranges far and wide in the usual eclectic manner. We hope it will provide plenty of recommendations for reading off the beaten track this spring. With it, as usual, you’ll find a copy of our latest Readers’ Catalogue, detailing new books, our backlist, books featured in the latest issue of the quarterly, recommended seasonal reading and other offers and bundles.
Kelly Louise Judd is an illustrator who lives in the mid-western United States. She is inspired by flora, fauna and folklore, and has a deep appreciation of the Arts and Crafts movement. Her illustrations have been featured in botanical and children’s books, and magazines, and on natural product labels. When she is not working she can often be found outdoors tending her garden or simply staring at plants.
Inside of a Dog was in the New York Times bestseller list for over a year and completely passed me by because, like the baby books, you don’t need it until you’ve got your own. The author, Alexandra Horowitz, is uniquely qualified for the ambitious task of getting inside the bodies and minds of another species. Her CV includes a BA in philosophy and a PhD in cognitive science studying dogs, plus earlier stints as a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and a fact-checker for the New Yorker. And, it perhaps goes without saying, she’s a dog person: in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book, the dogs come first
Dishonest or ‘crooked’ arguments are nothing new, but recently our fractious politics coupled with the invention of the Internet have lent them a fresh intensity, and a wider reach. Would that Straight and Crooked Thinking, written by Robert H. Thouless and first published in 1930, was now more widely read and taught in schools. This little book would not solve all our problems, of course, but it might help us see through partisan propaganda, take on unprincipled Internet warriors, persuade others honourably, defend our own beliefs effectively and (crucially) change our minds when necessary.
The summer of 2018 was a glory – as long as you weren’t a gardener. For those of us who fret about plants, it was a season as much to be endured as enjoyed. After a cold, late spring, the weather had pulled a U-turn, swerving into an intense dry heat that lasted from June to the end of August. With 7 per cent less rain than even the summer of ’76 – still, after a whole series of climatic upheavals, the touchstone for freak British weather – it wasn’t so surprising that anything newly planted shrivelled in the furnace.
I have a Russian wife. We work together – articles, talks, translations, books, to keep the wolf from the door. Sometimes, when a bigger than usual energy bill slides through the letterbox, or the car breaks down or the tax-man cometh, one of us will look at the other with a rueful grin and say: ‘The solution as I see it, Comrade, is to work harder.’ It’s a direct quotation from Animal Farm (1945) and the character we are quoting is the big carthorse Boxer, eighteen hands high, and the stalwart representative of the proletariat in George Orwell’s book.
A few months before his death I gave my father a copy of the Collected Poems of Robert Service, a British-Canadian poet whose long ballads he had discovered in his younger, single days while working on building sites in Alaska and Canada. He spoke often of his favourite, ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’, about a gold miner in the Yukon who honours his dying fellow prospector’s request for cremation rather than interment in a frozen grave. Hauling Sam McGee’s body for days on a dog sled, the narrator eventually finds a wrecked boat along a lake shore and uses it as a makeshift crematorium.
As The Ordeal opens, Gilbert Pinfold is a successful novelist in his late forties, but looking and feeling much older. He lives comfortably in the country with his wife and children. He does not consider himself rich but he can afford servants and good wine. Even so things are not going well. ‘He had become lazy . . . he spent most of the day in an armchair. He ate less, drank more and grew corpulent . . .’ Not surprisingly, indolence and indulgence mean that his health is not good and the lack of daily activity causes him to suffer from chronic insomnia.
Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (2016) is a joy. The binding, the layout and the lavish illustration make it a pleasure to handle before you even turn to the content, which perfectly fulfils its promise. De Hamel’s writing is not academic but vivid and entertaining, while the coloured reproductions are almost as dazzling as the fabulous beasts which so often clamber around their margins. As he says in his introduction, ‘the chapters are not unlike a series of celebrity interviews’.
We first meet the eponymous heroine of Brian Moore’s novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) shortly after she has moved into her new lodgings. As she carefully unpacks a silver-framed photograph of her Aunt D’Arcy and a religious image of the Sacred Heart, we sense her misgivings about ‘the condition of the bed-springs, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated’.
During a time when I was unable to work I read a lot, and randomly, picking up whatever took my fancy in the local bookshop. I had recently moved to an old farmstead on Orkney with enough space to grow some vegetables and berry fruit – not exactly living off the land, but an exciting departure for someone who had always lived in a town. One day I chanced upon Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed, took it home and soon found myself fantasizing about planting olive trees – although to tell the truth I always knew that olives would never thrive in a latitude so high that it is impossible to grow wheat here.
I’m deep in mountain territory, with a pot noodle and a stack of Post-its in front of me. It’s past midnight, and my final undergraduate exams are just around the corner. Feverishly, between forkfuls, I’m wandering on high over hill and vale; I’m crossing the Alps; I’m brooding on the Wordsworthian sublime. Every so often, I’ll note down an Important Thought on my pink Post-its. Nature! Morality! Mountains!
Aspiring young writers of fiction wish to be stylish. For many of them style is more essential than content, perhaps more important than sincerity. They want their prose to be inimitable, like Conrad’s or Hemingway’s, so that readers might identify their authorship from a single paragraph. As a young man, I was certainly like that, even though fiction didn’t turn out to be my thing. And of course I preferred to read novels by writers who themselves had a pronounced style.
We’re pleased to announce that we’re publishing Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff in a handsome new Plain Foxed Edition. This memoir was the first title we published in our series of limited-edition pocket hardbacks all those years ago, and it’s a pleasure to make it available to our readers again.
It wasn’t at first sight the sort of book I would choose, but there was nothing else remotely interesting on the single shelf in the charity shop. The dust-jacket showed a number of vapidly drawn images of Parisian life in pale reds and yellows. The title, A Girl in Paris, was not encouraging. But on the back was glowing praise by Patrick Leigh Fermor for a previous work by the author, Shusha Guppy. I opened it and was hooked.
‘The associated podcast launched a year or so ago reflects the erudition, intelligence and wide-ranging enthusiasm of the magazine and its contributors.’
Biographer and academic Jane Ridley and screenwriter and novelist Daisy Goodwin join the Slightly Foxed Editors to reveal the wealth to be found in royal biographies, memoirs and historical novels. From the remarkable diaries of Queen Victoria and the extraordinary life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria to Prince Albert’s cashmere breeches, a cottage meal at Sissinghurst with the Queen Mother, and Edward VII’s many mistresses, the parade of tales about the lives and loves of royal people roams far and wide. And we go on a on a quest for Queen Mary with James Pope-Hennessy in this month’s hunt through the magazine’s archives.
I guess (but I don’t know, since it’s not often a hot topic of conversation) that every amateur indexer has his or her own way of working. Since our joint IT expertise would shame most 10-year-olds and certainly does not extend to using a computer’s indexing facility, my husband and I use pencil and paper. Tried and tested over the course of twenty-five indexes of varying lengths and complexity, this old-fogeyish no-tech method has served us well, but never more so than when compiling the index to Sowing the Wind, John’s twentieth – century history of the Middle East.
It seems amazing that Ann Schlee’s work is not known to everyone, because she has always had her following and is still writing, but her four big novels written between the 1970s and 1996 are now out of print and hard to find.
I hunted for his books as well as for the miscellanies and magazines that featured his work. Though his entertaining, much-quoted Memoirs of the Forties soon reappeared in paperback, the rest of his surprisingly extensive output was hard to obtain. Due to their scarcity, his books commanded prices way beyond what I could afford. When I mentioned this to a flatmate who had access to a well-stocked reference library, my friend offered to smuggle out the ones I wanted. The first was the novel Of Love and Hunger, handed over to me at a furtive rendezvous. Before returning it a fortnight later, I photocopied the entire book. Confronted by a stack of smudgily duplicated pages, I felt like a Soviet dissident poring over a samizdat volume.
It is 8 a.m. on a September Sunday in New Delhi. The garden below is still fresh and green before the heat of the day, and pigeons bill and coo on the air-conditioning unit outside the bedroom window. There is a discreet knock at the door, and a tray of ‘bed tea’ is silently placed beside us, accompanied by the morning papers. As I sip (tea with hot milk – an unfamiliar taste), I turn to my favourite section of the Hindustan Times, the ten pages of ‘Matrimonials’.
John Ruskin’s Praeterita is one of the most exhilarating books I know, and I often go back to it. For most of his life the great art-critic-cum-sage was writing books to educate people. Once, when a reader told him how much he enjoyed his books, Ruskin answered, ‘I don’t care whether you enjoyed them. Did they do you any good?’ But at the end of his life, when he feared he was going mad, he felt he must abandon all the religious and aesthetic and social controversy of his life, and write a book that just recalled the happiness of his youth. The result was Praeterita – ‘past things’.
Rereading the books of one’s youth is always a hazardous business, since a magic once lost can never be regained, so I contemplated a fresh assault on A Square of Sky with pleasure tinged with dread. Not that I was that young when I read it last, back in the early 1970s: I’d turned 30, and was working as London’s most ineffectual literary agent. I much preferred memoirs and autobiographies to biographies or post-Victorian novels, and Janina David’s account of her childhood in wartime Poland struck me as a fine example of the genre.
At the top of some concrete stairs, in a slightly run-down area of London near Sadler’s Wells, is a room with a magic carpet, otherwise known as Eland Books. Open an Eland book and you are miraculously transported to another time and place – imperial India perhaps, or sixteenth-century Turkey, Ireland in the 1950s, or Germany just before the Second World War.
Once met, I rarely dislike a person. But the idea of a person often fills me with dislike and even abhorrence. So it was with Wyndham Lewis. I never met him but I might easily have done so, since I often begged J. R. Ackerley, the brilliant literary editor of The Listener and a close friend of us both, to effect an introduction. But Ackerley, always oddly fearful that, if he brought any two of his friends together, he might lose both of them, did nothing.
It is laconic and simple, non-romantic in that Slocum refuses to be a lone hero struggling against the terrifying sea. Rather, he is at home in the ocean wilderness, insisting that ‘the wonderful sea charmed me from the first’. Spray is his companion as much as a boat: ‘The Spray enjoyed many civilities while she rode at anchor.’ Revisiting Sailing Alone after more than thirty years, I was reminded of Slocum’s trick of appearing as a self-effacing guest, reading and cooking while the trusty Spray gets on with the job of sailing, holding her course with the wheel secured.
In Issue 1, I described the tradition in Chinese books of placing an illustration above a solid block of text on each page, a tradition that I set out to revive in my Chinese cookery manual.
No book has exposed my own double standard to me more clearly than Dancer by Colum McCann. A fictional portrait of Rudolf Nureyev, told from many angles in many different voices, it opens with one of the best short evocations of battle that I have ever read, as Russian soldiers return from the front at the end of the Second World War. The picture narrows to an industrial town in the remote hinterland where a boy watches the trains come in, waiting for his father. Then we see him being handed through a hospital window to perform folk dances for the wounded; he is a prodigy, who makes even the human wrecks drinking meths draw breath.
Rifa‘a al-Tahtawi has the strange distinction of being the only nineteenth-century Egyptian writer with his very own website. I first heard about him in a lecture by the French journalist and political scientist Guy Sorman. Sorman had just published a book on the Muslim world called Les enfants de Rifa‘a and started off by explaining the enigmatic title.
We all remember the first novels we read of our own volition, unprompted by parents or schoolmasters: in my case these were John Buchan’s stories of the adventures of Richard Hannay. We were in the throes of the Second World War and so First World War novels had a special relevance. When, therefore, half a century later, a reviewer of one of my own books said that the narrative read like ‘something out of Buchan’ (though he may not have meant it as an unqualified compliment), I regarded it as the ultimate accolade: Buchan had been a role model and Hannay was my hero.
I found a copy of Allan Sealy’s The Everest Hotel in a small bookshop in Dehra Dun in northern India. It was the dust jacket that caught my eye – a pen-and-ink drawing of a pair of large gnarled feet in shabby sandals, crossed, and resting on a balcony rail. Irresistible. The bookseller peered over my shoulder. ‘He lives here,’ he said, with a wide smile of pride. ‘Did you know?’ I didn’t. I had never heard of Allan Sealy. But a local author writing about local matters, places, people? Whether it lived up to its cover or not, it was the right book to read then, and there.
I suppose Tom Thumb in the fairy story is usually the first extremely small live person we come across. Early on we’re charmed by the miniature world of dolls’ houses, but the people in them are often lumpishly out of proportion to the finely detailed furniture and possessions they may live among – and they have no opinions, and they never eat the midget food upon their midget plates.
Ten years ago I found myself glancing through a shelf of Canto paperbacks (in Cambridge, where the University Press publishes them), all nicely and cleanly produced, with an appealing colour picture on the front cover, and many within my preferred limit of a couple of hundred pages. Wishing I had time to read all of them and wit to take them in – Anne Boleyn’s life, the impact of Darwin, the Knights Templar – I picked out Victorian Miniature. It turned out to be a nice example of the kind of book I am talking about.
‘Everything he wrote was total bilge. Apart, that is to say, from A Grief Observed. The man was a genius when it came to describing grief. I have to give him that. If you are coming to terms with a serious loss – as I am – you can’t beat A Grief Observed. You should read it.’
Once upon a time, or until about 1960 that is, there existed a genre of horticultural literature called, colloquially, ‘the chatty gardening book’. In fact, the phrase did these books less than justice, for they were generally interesting, amusing, literary works written by educated, cultured people for the edification of an equally educated gardening readership. I collect as many as I can find in second-hand bookshops for, even if the spelling of plant names in them is sometimes archaic, they are still a pleasure to read.
In 2002 Anthony Rota, a fourth-generation bookseller, published his memoirs of the antiquarian trade. He has known it for most of his life whereas I only came into it in 1965 after graduating from Cambridge. I was based in Curzon Street, while his shop was in Savile Row, but both of us might well have used the title of his book, Books in the Blood. In it he recalled some of the deals he had done, as well as two or three that he had notably missed, the many friends he made and the life of a West End bookshop before the era of the Internet.
My first encounter with Memoirs of Hadrian was during a brief holiday in Andalusia. As I drove north from Málaga into the snow-covered hills, my husband turned to the first page. Within a sentence we were transported into the second century ad; a few pages later we realized we were traversing the very same landscape Hadrian had known as a boy. It was in the hills and forests around Seville that he learned to ride and to hunt: ‘The kill in a Spanish forest was my earliest acquaintance with death and with courage.’
Ghali wrote his novel while living in poverty in Germany. The book was published in 1964 by André Deutsch and, as a result, Ghali met Diana Athill, who worked at Deutsch and is now best known for her autobiography Stet. ‘I was a sucker for oppressed foreigners, and an oppressed foreigner who could shrug off hardship in order to look at things with the humour and perceptiveness shown in his book was one whom I would certainly like.’
When I was a small boy, a holiday treat would be to visit my father who, for several decades, was the advertising manager of Pontings department store, the least glamorous if most worthy of its siblings on Kensington High Street, Barkers and Derry & Toms. There were a variety of routes through the store – via Ladies’ Coats, Hardware or maybe the domed Linen Hall – leading eventually to the roof-top office where my father and his staff were enveloped in a chaos of merchandise sent up by each buyer to be advertised on the back of the Evening Standard or included in the latest catalogue. Young though I was, I became infected with a strong desire to possess things, which all but the most ascetic of us probably share. This is what makes Zola’s Ladies’ Paradise such a pleasure, even if, by the end, a guilty one.
If the figures of history are paraded before the mind’s eye, century by century, once the 1750s are reached one seems suddenly to be looking through a zoom lens. The procession of more-or-less august personages, remote and rather incomprehensible, conventionally portrayed and stiffly posed, and speaking or writing in stilted formulae, is elbowed aside by an animated and colourful crowd, all in close focus. Their faces and their pens are equally lively: here at last are men and women with whom we would like to converse, at whose jokes we could laugh, and with whom it would be our good fortune to become friends.
‘What’s that book that’s making you laugh so much?’ said my wife. It was my old Everyman Lavengro, still for some reason in its bright red dust jacket, now tattered and torn. It’s a reprint of Everyman’s 1906 edition and it has a curiously hostile introduction by Thomas Seccombe, who a few years later was to be given the Chair of English Literature at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Poor George Borrow, he declared, ‘had anything but a fluent pen’, his inventive faculty was small, his style ‘peculiarly dry’, and he wrote only because he had to.
Goshawk Squadron, a story of the war in the air over the Western Front, is the missing link between Catch-22 and Blackadder. It was Derek Robinson’s first novel, published in 1971, and it was immediately short-listed for the Booker Prize, joining the likes of V. S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Mordecai Richler. The judges were no lightweights, either: Saul Bellow, John Fowles, Lady Antonia Fraser and Philip Toynbee, under the chairmanship of John Gross. Not an alternative comedian in sight.
Published in 1981, Among the Believers is the account of a journey through Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia in 1979, shortly after the Iranian revolution. Its subject, the Muslim fundamentalist revival, was not yet much of an issue inside Britain. (Naipaul made the journey again in 1995 for a sequel, Beyond Belief, but this first encounter with Islam proved to be the more revealing.)
Like everyone else, I had been shocked and baffled by the attacks on America. And although I had read a good deal of the torrent of punditry unleashed by the events of September 11, I was little closer to understanding them. Since I was in the middle of writing a book about the Muslim Uighurs of China, I snatched the paperback up.
I blame my grandmother. She was a great beach walker, scouring the coast for seashells thrown up by the Indian Ocean. She had eyes like a hawk, even at 60, finely tuned to any hint of a polished cowrie or the bright edge of a fan-shaped scallop half buried in the sand. And she was wonderfully generous, seeding our dawn searches with rare specimens left invitingly in my path.
‘Her whole life was spent riding at breakneck speed towards the wilder shores of love.’ Lesley Blanch’s memorable description of Jane Digby el Mezrab supplied the title of her first book and her contribution to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations; it has passed into the language, and places the writer definitively in her chosen emotional and geographical landscape. Saturated with movement and high drama, the image is outlandish, exotic, flagrantly romantic, with a hint of opéra bouffe.
It’s 1991 and the recession is beginning to bite. Publishers’ accountants are staring at unearned balances, and reputations – for being artistic, for having introduced a ‘new voice’ or style – are about to be shown up for what they are: froth on the daydream, in the unforgettable (and pretentious) words of the French surrealist writer Boris Vian. Everywhere, writers are talking of TV opportunities – or even, as rumour has it that Paramount are about to open a London office, the true daydream, that of the Hollywood blockbuster.
As well as being a rattling good read, Sabine Baring-Gould’s bloodstained historical romance Cheap Jack Zita is full of coincidences that make me feel rather possessive about it. It’s set in Ely for one thing, and so am I – admittedly not quite the Ely of 1816, though reading the book, it’s surprising to see how little the place has changed in the past 200 years.
I once met a girl who was writing a thesis on Conrad. Her opinion of Nostromo was nothing if not passionate. ‘It’s like Conrad means to bore you to death,’ she recommended. ‘You must read it!’ So I did. I set out into the novel one morning and then kept on going for a couple of days, crouching by the coal fire of a scruffy student kitchen, staving off hunger with big basins of porridge.
The term ‘masterpiece’ is often used lazily as a bit of instant praise, but the dictionary definition is actually ‘a production surpassing in excellence all others by the same hand’. So, strictly, you can only produce one masterpiece. Cyril Connolly (1903-1974) may have had this on his mind when he began his book The Unquiet Grave: ‘The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and no other task is of any consequence.’ He, alas, never produced a major work to earn the distinction himself, and he will mainly be remembered as the founder (with Stephen Spender) of the literary magazine Horizon and as the principal book reviewer of the Sunday Times in the period after the Second World War.
Garden-writing is always either grimly concerned with the nuts and bolts of gardening’s practicalities or with its latest and flashiest fashions. The first kind is written by mere doers, the second by mere puffers, therefore neither is of any interest as writing. Gardening, and by extension writing about gardening, is something done better in Britain than anywhere else, certainly better than anywhere else in the English-speaking world. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again, dear reader. A single slim volume, Gardening for Love by Elizabeth Lawrence, delicately but devastatingly disposes of all those fallacies.
My first copy of Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea was a twelfth birthday present, given to me in 1956. It was Cassell’s expurgated ‘Cadet Edition’, intended for a generation who knew little about the war during which they had been born. While Monsarrat’s publishers thought we should be acquainted with the Battle of the Atlantic, they clearly considered that we would come in our own time to adultery and what was then breathlessly referred to as ‘premarital sexual intercourse’. What mattered was access to Monsarrat’s brilliant evocation of a grim campaign at sea. I read it as I bumped into school on the Northern Line and have been haunted by it ever since.
Every year as many as eleven thousand novels may be published in Britain, of which only a handful amount to much. So it is all the more surprising to come across a masterpiece. Such is Embers by the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai. I found myself so gripped by this elegiac novel, so seduced by its limpid prose, that when I came to the final page I turned back to the first and began to reread.
Once Upon Another Time is Jessica Douglas-Home’s account of the part she herself played in an extraordinary private enterprise which came to be known as ‘the Oxford visitors’. The story began with Julius Tomin, a philosophy teacher who had been ejected from his university position in Czechoslovakia. He continued openly, but unofficially, to teach courses for students expelled from Charles University on political grounds. He and his students were subjected to violence and harassment, and the strict control of access to books imposed by the authorities led to their losing touch entirely with the course of learning in the West. In 1979 Tomin wrote a letter to many Western universities, inviting lecturers to visit and speak at his seminars. Oxford was the only university to respond.
Suddenly, out of the blue, one morning in December 1965, a letter arrived on the delightfully old-fashioned headed notepaper of the Poetry Society (‘Patron, Sir Compton Mackenzie, LL.D., F.R.S.L., President, Professor Nevill Coghill, M.A., F.R.S.L.’), written, but not signed, by Robert Armstrong, Secretary and Treasurer.
John Smith, it said, had decided that a four-year stint as Editor of the Poetry Review was ‘about enough’. He and Armstrong had undertaken ‘an intimate review’ of the situation, and were now writing to ask whether I might care to take on the job.
Not many pleasures attach to growing old. And as former pleasures pass away one by one, fewer still emerge, new and unrehearsed. Reading, albeit more slowly and through spectacles, remains a source of knowledge and provides the increasingly rare frisson of sheer delight. Most unexpectedly in my perilously lengthening lifetime, however, arrived the spanking new and rejuvenating joy of rereading.
A Little Bush Maid began as a serial, from newspaper articles which Minnie (as she was christened) Grant Bruce – a jobbing journalist in Melbourne – had contributed to the children’s page she edited. Popular demand made her editor suggest they might make a book. Though it still seems thinly episodic, it does introduce the main cast of characters: David Linton, the owner of Billabong, who had turned ‘in a night from a young man to an old one’ when his wife died; Norah herself, a tomboy and apple of her father’s eye; her big brother, Jim, away at boarding-school some of the time, an athlete and no intellectual, but straight as a die; Wally Meadows his mate, dark and cheerful, ‘a wag of a boy . . . [who] straightaway laid his boyish heart down at Norah’s feet, and was her slave from the first day they met’; Mrs Brown, the cook, ‘fat, good-natured and adoring’; black Billy, the stable-hand, whose command of English is limited to the word ‘plenty’; Mr Hogg the gardener; his sworn enemy, Lee Wing, the Chinese vegetable gardener (complete with queue, or pigtail); Mr Groom, the English storekeeper, who tries to teach Norah to play the piano by more than just ear; Murty O’Toole, head stockman; Dave Boone, one of the station-hands; Sarah and Mary, Irish housemaids; and of course the dogs and the horses, particularly Norah’s pony, Bobs. At the centre of the plot is the Hermit, whom Norah befriends and who turns out to be David Linton’s long-lost friend, an accountant wrongly accused of dishonesty, who as a consequence had faked his own death before hiding away in the bush.
Faced with a new book, an illustrator ponders. Should the illustrations decorate the page or interpret the text? Should they interpret it scene by scene or accompany it at a distance as a visual counterpoint? Will they be simple visualizations, getting the costumes, settings and characters as ‘anyone’ would wish to see them, or a more personal interpretation? Will they be chapter headings, full pages or vignettes? How many have been commissioned, how frequently will they occur? Will their even placing coincide with illustratable moments, or will favourite scenes have to be ditched and minor ones brought forward?
Recently I was given a copy of The Music at Long Verney: Twenty Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It was a revelation. Years ago, when I was a struggling art student, I read and loved her novels, but I somehow failed to discover the short stories. Many had first appeared in The New Yorker, and eight collections in all were published. I began to read, and there was the gracious world of the mind that I remembered from her novels, the lush sentences with their ravishing, tumbling clauses, delicious rhythms, exquisite imagery, painterly detail, the fantastic sense of place.
My favourite Russian writer-doctor is not Anton Chekhov but Mikhail Bulgakov, who describes with aching clarity the slow and at times humiliating road to acquiring what London taxi-drivers call ‘the knowledge’. (Shortly before his death from renal disease in 1940, Bulgakov wrote of medics: ‘I won’t call doctors murderers, that would be too harsh, but I will call them casual untalented hacks.’)
I first discovered Theodor Storm about eight years ago when someone sent me a copy of The Dykemaster in an excellent translation by Denis Jackson. I say excellent, not because of its truth to the original German, of which I’m not competent to judge, but because of its strong and consistently evocative English; like all good translations, it brings its own flavour to the story.
Some books arrive out of the blue and virtually save one’s life, and Douglas Botting’s biography of Gavin Maxwell was one such book for me. I was lying in my hospital bed after an unscheduled operation, and had implored my sister-in-law to bring me a novel by Trollope, as nothing had cheered me so much during a previous illness as The Small House at Allington. I had rarely felt more in need of cheering up.
Greetings from No. 53 where we’ve been busy with subscriptions, renewals and book orders thanks to those of you who’ve been adding to your Foxed reading lists. We’re very grateful as the office is now looking shipshape and ready for the arrival of the spring quarter’s offerings in just a few weeks’ time. Before we look ahead to the new season, we’re looking back through the SF archives. This article by Valerie Grove appears as the preface to our pocket paperback edition of Dodie Smith’s Look Back with Love, in which we meet the funny, complicated, creative young reader who became a much beloved writer.
For those like me who look out for, and sometimes even retain, useless knowledge, the first World’s Classic, published in 1901, was Jane Eyre; the last in the original pre-paperback series, published in 1973, was Crime and Punishment. The latter was No. 619, making the series many hundred volumes shorter than the original Everyman edition of classics, and many hundreds longer than the modern Everyman which started in 1992. If you had read even half of its remarkable range, you could consider yourself very widely read.
They were also convinced that there was a niche to be filled. So they set about raising money from friends and well-wishers – not a lot, just enough to get started – and in June 2003 launched the Maia Press. The name is based on a version of their two Christian names. Maia, they later discovered, was, serendipitously, the Greek word for ‘midwife’ – an eminently suitable name for a small literary publisher.
To compensate for this structural flaw, I went to Athens and had the adventure I wanted to have. Then I nipped back to Rome, found a seedy pensione and holed up there until he arrived. For two days I lived on peaches and pasta and read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.
Baldwin’s famous novel was published in 1956 when he was becoming not only America’s foremost black homosexual writer but also a spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin outspokenly held white America accountable for the racism poisoning its society. He insisted that, because whites could not love themselves, they could not love their black brothers and sisters, and that they paid for their persecution ‘by the lives they led’. Yet Giovanni’s Room contains not a single black character. It is as if Baldwin is writing above race and gender in order to draw universal conclusions. The boldness of the enterprise still astonishes me.
A parasite is often to be admired for its ingenuity and persistence, even if it isn’t always attractive. A friend of mine once discovered a worm in his bed. It had come from his own body and had been living there for several months, beginning its tour in the previous March, when it manifested itself by giving him a cough and a bad chest. He found this out later when researching the life of the roundworm, which had apparently completed a convoluted journey round his interior, beginning in the spring. ‘The female roundworm’, he said proudly, ‘lays a quarter of a million eggs a day!’
It is perhaps a good idea to take this sort of positive view of parasitism, because, according to W. H. McNeill, author of Plagues and Peoples, we are all parasites. ‘Most human lives’, he writes, ‘are caught in a precarious equilibrium between the microparasitism of disease organisms and the macroparasitism of large-bodied predators, chief among which have been other human beings,’ the sort involved in ‘war, plunder, enslavement, tax farming’.
The one thing that five of the six Stefan Zweig books currently in print in Britain have most strikingly in common is not the author’s consistency of style but his photograph opposite the title page. The most famous of these, The Royal Game, notorious in European and American chess circles for decades, is the only one innocent of his image, the publisher preferring instead to show us a sketch of the battleground whereupon that so-called royal game is fought. The photograph in the other five books is warmly revealing. Herr Zweig’s devilish Viennese smile – as evident yet as beautifully suppressed as a maître d’s as he spins a yarn to his richest and most despised customer that really, yes truly, there are no free tables tonight – underlines a polished French moustache which is given subtle uplift by the fourth finger of Zweig’s right hand lying against his cheek. Posing thus he exudes the supremely confident air of a conjuror, a salesman of Hispano-Suizas, a hypnotherapist; definitely someone not to be trusted – and one cannot help but speculate on what his left hand is doing.
The day before she died she was clambering over a pile of books on the floor of my study: novels used for teaching, reference books for the novel I was writing. She wasn’t used to being there. She clambered over the twentieth-century fiction, and a guide to Victorian china, in the same way she did everything: slowly, with a thoughtful curiosity, and a gaze as ancient as Greece.
It is peculiarly exciting to turn a page and find a strong personal emotion exactly distilled – an emotion hitherto believed to be one’s private idiosyncrasy. Around the age of 13 most bookish children break into verse (the literary equivalent of acne) and I then wrote a ‘poem’ about corncrakes – specifically, what their crake did to me (and continued to do until farming became agribusiness and the crake was heard no more.) On p. 282 of Woodbrook David Thomson says in a few words what I failed to say in several feverishly florid verses.
I first read Alison Uttley’s The Country Child over thirty years ago, when I was already in my twenties. I have always remembered it fondly, for it described a way of life that did not then seem so very far away. My grandmother was born in 1897 and I could still remember her stories of life on a remote Devon farm. When the book was reissued recently I read it again, this time with the eyes of a children’s librarian, wondering whether it would appeal to those brought up in very different times and from very different backgrounds.
I can’t remember the moment when I decided to allow Biggles some space in my new novel, but I imagine he just turned up one day, demanding attention. An ingrained loyalty to past escapism meant that I had to take him seriously. There’s an inner store in my mind, a bag of glittery details that I’ve accumulated over the years. Biggles was probably sitting waiting for the opportunity and jumped out when I was rummaging around for something else.
The ups and downs of literary reputations are often slightly mysterious. I still find it strange, though, that although we pay ample homage to most of the heavyweights of the nineteenth century, one of the best and liveliest of them all has been allowed to fade from view. Thomas Love Peacock (1785–1866) deserves much better than that. I find his writings – sceptical, dry and sparkling with wit – as rewarding today as when I first read them many years ago.
Last summer the two masters of travel writing, Norman Lewis and Wilfrid Thesiger, died within a month of each other. As Britain buried the last of her explorers and the best of her travel writers, it became clear that a literary threshold had been crossed. The obituaries were unanimous in their praise of these great men, a pair of triumphant individualists who were born with a zeal to record a vanishing world.
The notion of a long swim through Britain began in the pouring rain while Roger Deakin was swimming in his moat in Suffolk. The idea became an obsession and, inspired by John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’, in which the hero Ned Merrill swims drunkenly home through a series of neighbours’ pools, he embarked on a random journey to swimming spots throughout the British Isles.
Scrolling idly through the SOAS Library’s subject catalogue, I must have brushed an unusual combination of keys, so activating a random function not mentioned on the options bar nor widely known to researchers. The feat has since proved impossible to repeat. But I keep trying; for it was thanks to this truly serendipitous action that up flashed a title which, for its crystal candour, can seldom have been bettered. Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos was so specific it had to be just that – a handbook and culinary guide to the fish to be found in landlocked Laos. The author was Alan Davidson, the publisher Prospect Books, the category ‘Long Loan’, and the status ‘Available’. Like a minnow into the reeds, I darted to the stacks.
I have always been interested in translations, for they can affect one nation’s view of another. Thanks to Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes and a weepy film called Waterloo Road, for most Chinese,
London remains eternally wreathed in fog, never mind the Clean Air Acts. And translation can ensure that books long forgotten in their native place continue to thrive elsewhere.
I am next to a businessman at a formal dinner. The conversation dries up after the soup. At a loss, I ask what sort of books he enjoys. Risky, I know. Either he won’t read, ‘except on planes when I buy whatever I can find at the airport’, or his answer will be as revealing as if I had asked him to tell me his life story. I am lucky. My businessman, more interested in fiction than foreign exchange, tells me, the book junkie, of a wonderful American author of whom I am ignorant. I am eternally grateful to him and still have the scrap of paper – menu on one side, ‘Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose’, on the other – which I stuffed into my tiny bag.
Given that we’re talking in years, it is ironic that the book that stimulated this article deals with the most ephemeral entomological order, poetically described by Louis MacNeice as ‘One only day of May alive beneath the sun’. The American artist Gaylord Schanilec is illustrating and writing Mayflies of the Driftless Region, which he plans to publish in the autumn of 2005 under his Midnight Paper Sales imprint.
Only one masterpiece has ever been written about the game: Beyond a Boundary, by the intellectual and political agitator C. L. R. James. It is a book that transcends all other books on the subject in the same way that Sir Donald Bradman existed in a solitary eminence above all other batsmen. I don’t think that an English writer could ever have written a book of such calibre, because our literary culture has wrongly regarded sport as trivial. By contrast James treated cricket with deep moral seriousness, for in the West Indies, where he was born and bred, the game formed a central part of the culture of the islands. The most important theme of his book is how cricket created a new national consciousness which enabled the West Indies to shake off their colonial oppressors. The development of this argument confers a wonderful amplitude on Beyond a Boundary.
I got lucky in 1971. In that year’s Booker prize I came 2nd, or so Saul Bellow, one of the judges, said. Coming 2nd, of course, was like coming 102nd; nevertheless it boosted my ego, which got a further shot in the arm when the International Biographical Centre, based in Cambridge, wrote and said they would be pleased to include my entry in their International Who’s Who in Poetry. I was flattered, but there were two problems. The book cost £18, which I didn’t have. And I hadn’t written a line of poetry.
I owe the discovery of The Passing of a Hero and Conventional Weapons to a fellow-visitor to the London Library who, shrewdly interpreting the glazed stare of a fellow shelf-crawler, urged me to make my way to English fiction and look for Jocelyn Brooke.
Brooke is known today, although not widely, for three wartime novels – The Military Orchid, A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral, which were reissued in 1981 by Secker & Warburg as ‘The Orchid Trilogy’. Unashamedly autobiographical, they use the twin devices of orchids and fireworks, subjects on which Brooke had acquired a rich store of recondite knowledge, to tell the story of Brooke’s upbringing in Kent, his years at Oxford and his experiences as a soldier posted to Italy in the Second World War.
‘The small material objects that surround one’s daily life have always influenced me deeply,’ wrote E. (Edith) Nesbit in her memoir Long Ago When I Was Young. In my mother’s old nursery were several such objects – a doll’s crib, a triangular book cupboard made by my great grandfather – but the smallest and most influential was a smiling Buddha-shaped figurine: Billikin, God of Things as They Ought to Be.
Every Christmas we went to see Peter Pan at the Scala Theatre in London, a faithful restaging of the original Edwardian production, and the second major influence in this fanciful child’s life. For if things really were As They Ought to Be, fairies and adventure would surely follow. It was inevitable, then, that of all the children’s books I loved, E. Nesbit’s magic trilogy, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet, would take precedence over her more famous The Railway Children or The Story of the Treasure Seekers.
Halfway through Marilynne Robinson’s gorgeous novel Gilead, the narrator, John Ames, a 77-year-old preacher in Iowa, makes this observation: ‘Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behaviour, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.’
It is unusual for moral responses to be set aside in favour of aesthetic ones in a theological context, especially (one might think) where the context is Calvinist. The practice is more familiar, even if it often goes unrecognized, in literature. It is, for example, one of the sustaining tensions of Tolstoy’s work – Anna concludes that Karenin is a bad man immediately after being disgusted by his clammy hand. More directly than most fiction, Gilead portrays an individual trying to make sense of his life. This might also serve as a description of the art of autobiography, and I immediately found myself applying Ames’s remark to a clutch of autobiographies I had recently read.
I was drawn to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 debut novel, for just such unintellectual reasons. I suppose I must have been about 17 at the time. From what I remember, my sudden urge to read this two-decade-old novel stemmed from seeing the 1960 film adaptation on TV. I was also curious because it was set in Nottingham, where I’d grown up.
I am, literally, a bad reader. I have mild dyslexia and well remember, when reading Peyton Place in my youth, taking ‘sonofabitch’ as ‘sofabitch’ and thinking it was a piece of bordello furniture. I am also partially sighted and have difficulty reading in either bright or low light; and with poor peripheral vision I tend to miss the ends of lines. So the advent of audio tapes and of the Talking Book (pioneered by the RNIB) has been a splendid thing for me.
It is a fair bet to say that, for most people under the age of 50, and those who are not jazz fans, the name Louis Armstrong is one associated – if recognized at all – with the sound of his voice (or, far worse, pastiches of it) singing ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ or ‘Hello Dolly’ on the backing tracks of commercials. A dimmer memory may come of a jovial old cove appearing in the film High Society, dueting with Bing Crosby and tooting a few notes on his trumpet. Even when Louis died in 1971, few of those who genuinely mourned the loss of a great entertainer had any knowledge of his true history or musical worth.
Good Morning, Midnight is in fact the fourth in a series of novels that draw largely on Jean Rhys’s own life. Sasha Jansen is a lonely, ageing alcoholic who, at the instigation of a worried friend, goes to spend a recuperative fortnight in Paris, where she had lived during her brief marriage. Now she wanders the streets, ‘remembering this, remembering that’. She has been so damaged by men that when happiness is within her grasp she is unable to prevent herself seeking revenge with a futile gesture of self-destruction.
The time is the mid-1970s, the place is Marin County, an affluent Bohemian suburb of San Francisco, the desired state of mind is ‘mellow’. And so the scene is set for a delicious comedy of manners, in which Kate and Harvey Holroyd struggle to embrace the new Zeitgeist.
Do your favourite authors have a recognizable voice, so that you can identify them from a paragraph in the same way that you identify a voice over the telephone? Angela Thirkell has just such a voice, but even so she has been out of fashion since the 1960s – partly, I suspect, because her later work had a strongly rancorous tone. I’d never heard of her until I came to weed a technical college library in the ’70s and happened upon a hardback novel with a map of Barsetshire as a frontispiece. Who was this Thirkell woman?
Bad News by Edward St Aubyn is, quite simply, the best book ever written about drugs. Thomas de Quincey, Charles Baudelaire, Jean Cocteau, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Irvine Welsh and Will Self may all be writers roped together like mountaineers heading for the summit, but it is St Aubyn they will find at the top. I first came across the book about five years ago. There it was, quietly glowing away on a friend’s shelf. And from the moment I picked it up I knew it was a work of perfection. It fitted my own experience as seamlessly as a silk glove.
There’s an esprit de l’escalier peculiar to the writer, when your book has just gone to the printer and you hit upon something so crucial to it that you hop about for days cursing at the loss. So it is with me and Karel Čapek.
Eight winters ago in India I fled the manila-folder-bound desiccation of Delhi for the south and Kerala. The backwaters there have a sensuality that slides about you as you enter, moving you away from the frantic buzz of life, separating you from a sense of time and place. The slowness starts to seep into your skin, spreading itself over you, drinking you in.
I’ve been a passionate reader all my life, be it of labels on jam jars or the small print on the back of tax forms, aged copies of free newspapers left on seats on the London Underground, Peter Rabbit or Plato. Reading is more than pleasure, it’s like breathing. Generally, though, I read for aesthetic reasons (literature, to enjoy the writer’s skill), to keep up (newspapers and periodicals) or for escape (thrillers, the blacker the better). Or that was true before my mother died.
Recently, I noticed a rather irritating poster on the Underground proclaiming: ‘You never forget your first time.’ It was an advertisement for a villa holiday company – bizarrely – but the irritation I felt (since I am not annoyed by villa holidays per se) had to do with the too obvious double entendre. In fact, one does not forget the first time that one does quite a lot of things – seeing one’s name in print, for instance, or walking along Striding Edge, that most vertiginous of paths on to the top of Helvellyn – and certainly I have never forgotten the first time I read a gardening book.
The Longshoreman is the story of an obsession with fish, beginning when, as a boy in the 1940s, Richard Shelton explored the streams around his home in Buckinghamshire, and continuing right through the twenty years he spent as head of the Freshwater Fisheries Laboratory at Pitlochry, in Scotland, from 1982 to 2001.
Eighty years ago Ian Suttie, a Scottish psychiatrist, wrote The Origins of Love and Hate, in which he fiercely criticized Freud’s theories. Freud saw human beings as ‘isolates wrestling with their instincts’, Suttie saw them as dreading isolation, ‘striving from the first to relate to [the] mother, and [their] future mental health turning on the success or failure of this first relationship’. Love was social rather than sexual in its biological function, thought Suttie, and was derived from a ‘self-preservation instinct rather than the genital appetite’.
Every season a couple of wonderful biographies emerge whose reviews and sales might lead one to believe that they will stay bestsellers for ever. A year or two later they are in no greater demand than thousands of other backlist titles. Examples of this might be Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana or David Gilmour’s Curzon. Both were rightly acclaimed, but after the flurry of reviews, after Christmas had come and gone, they joined others on the shelves as definitive works on rather specialized subjects whose future sales will be steady, but modest. This is not to derogate the books: it is just what happens.
Thirty-nine years ago I came to work at Heywood Hill’s bookshop in Curzon Street. Between school and Cambridge, I had worked for three months at Heffers, where Mr Reuben Heffer had cannily put me in the Science Department. It was the only part of the shop where I wouldn’t read the stock. This could hardly be called a preparation for the sophisticated carriage trade in the West End, and I had little inkling of what would be expected of me. At my interview with Handasyde Buchanan, Heywood’s long-term partner and my future boss, it appeared that he considered himself the doyen of London booksellers and that he was pleased that, like him, I had had a Classical education.
A curious thing: the New York literary world is smaller than the London literary world. It also has a strange feeling of being more old-fashioned. I was edited there by the legendary Joe Fox. I don’t think he liked me, but we would have dinner at a hotel restaurant, the last place where he could smoke in New York, and talk about great writers, including William Maxwell. Joe Fox died at his desk in Random House behind a huge pile of copies of the New York Times, cigarette on his lips.
It was towards the end of his long life, after revolutionalizing many other aspects of design, that William Morris embarked on his ‘typographical adventure’ at the Kelmscott Press. Though it survived for less than eight years and was wound up shortly after his death in 1896, it managed to produce 53 publications, including many of his own writings and a celebrated edition of Chaucer in a highly distinctive dark, ‘Gothic’ style. Kelmscott provided the crucial impetus for the four leading private presses considered in an excellent new series from the British Library and Oak Knoll Press.
The Red Hourglass, a debut volume by a writer called Gordon Grice, explores a fundamental premise. ‘We want the world to be an ordered room,’ its author writes, ‘but in the corner there hangs an untidy web.’ Within lurks ‘an irreducible mystery, a motiveless evil in Nature’. This was the idea that had captured the imagination of the movie director. And that was the idea that had trapped me, too, the first time I came across the book. I had picked it up from a literary editor’s review pile and started to leaf, distractedly, through it. Half an hour later, I was sitting on the floor, transfixed.
The only time I have been to Greece as it appears on the modern map was when I was barely out of short trousers. I went with that indispensable aid to travel, an aunt, and with the idea that I knew quite a lot about the place. My aorists and iota subscripts, however, were useless; that crucial moment for quoting Simonides on the dead Spartans never turned up. Even the sights were an anticlimax – bones of buildings, hordes of charabancs; the glory that was.
Though J. M. Coetzee is now internationally fêted as South Africa’s second Nobel Laureate in Literature, his early novels remain largely ignored. His first, Dusklands, is especially worth rediscovering. Drawing a keenly observed connecting line backwards through history, it links the American war in Vietnam with the European land grab at the southern tip of Africa in the eighteenth century.
In 1935, Denton Welch – then an art student at Goldsmith’s College – was knocked off his bike on a busy road just outside Bromley. He spent over a year in hospital and was permanently weakened by his injuries. He died thirteen years later at the age of 33, leaving behind him a few strange but compelling books – all of which obsessively pick over Denton’s recollections of his life before the accident. They culminate in A Voice through a Cloud, a nightmarish account of his months in hospitals and convalescent homes in southern England. He died before he finished it and it ends, with poignant abruptness, in the middle of a paragraph, with Denton sitting, uncertain and in pain, in his doctor’s car which is parked outside a bungalow in Broadstairs.
Arctic Dreams is much more than a travel book; its subtitle is Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, which causes one to raise an eyebrow. Desire? What does the man mean? To be honest I am still not too sure, but by now I am sufficiently beguiled by its author not to care too much. Suffice it that he takes you on a journey to black seas in which float icebergs the size of cathedrals, to the campsites of Inuit who died fifteen hundred years ago, and to endless plains where snow geese rise like twists of smoke; that he conjures up for you the intimate presence of narwhals, polar bears, seals, whales, muskoxen.
Count Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy is a long novel about the follies, beauties and shortcomings of Hungarian society in the decade leading up to the First World War. He wrote it during the 1930s, when the disastrous outcomes of that war were still developing. Nostalgia may have been an active ingredient of this project, but Banffy’s purpose was to record rather than gild what had been lost. One of his conscious motivations was to help future Hungarians understand their past.
Books that have a profound effect on your life are usually books that you read young, but I only recently discovered The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists. Nevertheless its impact has been startling. It caught me at that moment in middle age when you realize that the only thing ahead is death, but there it sits on my bedside table to provide comfort, exhilaration and much amusement.
I was thus apprehensive, for my sake as well as my children’s, when I encouraged them to read Rosemary Sutcliff. I wondered whether I would still be drawn to her ancient worlds, her vanished races among the Caledonian Forest, her harpers and her war hosts, her bonfire festivals of Lammas and Beltane, her mead horns at Saxon feastings, her evocations of the last of Roman Britain.
I need not have worried. The magic was still there. In his pantheon of literary heroes and heroines, Giuseppe di Lampedusa reserved the highest places for the authors he called creatori di mondi. Rosemary Sutcliff was such a writer, a creator of worlds, lost worlds, often worlds of lost causes, of the departing legions, of Arthurian Britain, of the last stand of the Lakeland Norsemen against the knights of William Rufus. But they are not simply worlds of battle-axes and war horns. Her imagination encompassed the natural world, a feeling for its rites and a knowledge of its workings. Some of her most beautiful passages describe the changing of seasons, the ways of wolf packs, the flights of wild geese, the solitudes of the east coast marshes. And no one (except perhaps Kipling) has handled the death of a devoted dog better than she did in Dawn Wind.
In 1963 a convict serving a four-year sentence in Dartmoor for car theft thought he would write a novel. He called his book Young and Sensitive and described it as ‘a tender novel of awakening love as seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old boy, when he discovers his first affair is a thing of vibrant beauty’.
Tikopia lies 1,500 miles east of Australia in that part of the Pacific known as Melanesia. But culturally Tikopia’s population is Polynesian. For reasons that are not entirely clear the Tikopia ‘back-migrated’ from the Polynesian heartlands in Samoa and Tonga, sailing west against the general flow of migration about a thousand years ago. Today the island is technically part of the Solomons, but it is largely autonomous. Its inhabitants, whose skin is the colour of copper, are quite alone in a black-skinned Melanesian sea. It is this combination of isolation and insularity that has made Tikopia a favourite subject for anthropologists.
That a romantic could have also been
So classical is striking you’ll agree
Though waxing passionate when we are green
And cooler when mature is probably
A change determined in the very gene
Or so at any rate it seems to me –
Our grasp of life is just that bit more firm,
Our reason turns like the proverbial worm.
During my early Fleet Street years, in the 195o’s, we hacks were chillingly familiar with the grim ritual of hanging. I still remember with a shudder having to wait outside Wandsworth or some other prison as, inside, a condemned man was led by the chaplain from his cell to the waiting gallows. At the prison gates, as the execution hour approached, usually nine o’clock in the morning, one would see, trying desperately to comfort one another, a small group of the prisoner’s sobbing family.
Outbursts of memoir-writing by women followed both the English Civil Wars and the years 1789 to 1830 in France, the period encompassing the Revolution, Napoleon, the Restoration and the July Revolution. It is hardly surprising since both these were periods of profound upheaval, when events left a deep impress on people’s minds as well as a desire to explain and justify them, and their own behaviour at the time, to future generations. Mrs Lucy Hutchinson, Ann, Lady Fanshawe, Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle and Anne, Lady Halkett were followed 150 years later by Mesdames de Boigne, de La Tour du Pin and de Remusat. The reissue of Madame de Boigne’s book in translation drew me back to reread the last three.
Ever since he drew my attention some years ago to the best book I’ve read in the last decade – Time Will Darken It by William Maxwell – I have trusted Nicholas Lezard’s judgement. And if I remember correctly, it was his recommendation in the Guardian that also made me rush out to find Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, of whom I had never heard. It wasn’t in the shops, so I had to order it.
In George Ramsden’s quiet secondhand bookshop, Stone Trough Books, in York, he normally has a publishing job on the go as well. Editing (letters of Siegfried Sassoon at the moment) and book-design absorb him to the extent that he may barely notice when a customer comes in. Indeed, with his horn-rimmed spectacles under a shock of rigid hair, and a manner combining chivalry with extreme vagueness, he has the air of a startled hedgehog when spotted beyond the bookstacks. His series of catalogues – a leisurely fifteen spread over twenty years – are typographically understated, without colour illustration and with only scant recommendation of the books, but nevertheless beautifully designed, as are his own publications. He confesses to being a complete amateur as regards design but his life has become infused with the subject, and he now ponders title-pages, wine-labels, logos on lorries, sheet-music covers, even shop fascias, with an unusual degree of discernment.
Each time I read Reef – the story of a boy, Triton, growing up as a servant and cook in Sri Lanka in the late 1960s – I find something new. I think the way that The Tempest flits in and out of the novel is one of the things that keeps me rereading it. Another is the play of light and shadow in Romesh Gunesekera’s prose.
I lived in Colombo from 1992 to 1994, teaching English, and my first home was on Havelock Road where, only the year before, a bomb had exploded, throwing severed heads and body parts into the air. This, by Sri Lankan standards, was nothing. Like many others, I was struck by the incongruity of such horror in a country so deceptively gentle, one that looked so much like the Garden of Eden. In Reef Gunesekera seduces you with a charming depiction of a lost era, but underlying it all is the knowledge of the killing that came later.
The tank is an emblem of state power, a behemoth that has transformed wars and threatened – and sometimes mown down – civilians. But it has also been seen as a ‘cubist slug’, has inspired a modernist song and dance routine Tanko, has led military men to philosophize, and installation artists to appropriate the rhomboid shape to suggest the ultimate in urban alienation. In short, the tank, as Tank so skilfully and wittily and sadly shows us, stands at the very heart of the twentieth century and points up its follies, its wickedness, its aspirations, its delusions – and occasionally its humanity.
When the doorbell rings at 4 a.m. in a Marylebone flat one does not normally leap out of bed to answer it – unless one suspects it might be a Bulgarian lover. Dobrinka stood there on the doorstep in a fur coat, holding the neck of a bottle and swinging a luxurious packet on a satin string. The bottle glinted in the harsh lights of the nearby Heart Hospital.
I am wretchedly ill-qualified to write about Simon Gray, since I am hopeless about going to the theatre and have never seen one of his plays. I plan to remedy matters as soon as I can, but in the meantime I cannot recommend his autobiographical writings too highly. An Unnatural Pursuit is, alas, out of print, but Fat Chance, Enter a Fox and the masterly Smoking Diaries have all been reissued in paperback, and only the most Cromwellian theatre-hater could fail to be touched, amused and thoroughly entertained by them.
William Golding was the only writer I have ever pursued. An Angry Young novel I wrote in three weeks when up at Cambridge, The Breaking of Bumbo, outsold Lord of the Flies that year for Faber & Faber. This was ludicrous, but it was followed by Golding’s kindness when I wrote to him. He sent me an open invitation to visit him by the watercress beds at Bowerchalke, halfway between Salisbury Cathedral and Stonehenge – midway between the new and the ancient faiths.
When he was asked to update The Making of the English Landscape by W. G. Hoskins, Christopher Taylor described it as ‘one of the greatest history books ever written’. I may not have appreciated that when I bought the original version as a modest Pelican paperback in 1975 but, like any self-absorbed teenager, I was convinced of its importance to me. It was a revelation, confirming and explaining things dimly sensed yet intensely felt, and it settled deeply into my consciousness, permanently altering the way I looked at the world.
Reading the opening chapter, I was immediately sucked into a magical world. The hare’s behaviour confounds science: it may move in a great drove like deer; it sucks milk from cows at pasture; it swims the Suir estuary in Ireland; it is intoxicated by snow, and makes tunnels in it for fun, despite not being a burrowing animal like its cousin the rabbit. And as part of an elaborate, little-understood mating ritual, it will sit transfixed in groups of thirty or forty, watching dancing, boxing males and females spar for attention.
At some point in the early 1960s Jennings was supplanted in the Observer by someone altogether more bracing: Michael Frayn. It was about the time of That Was the Week That Was and Private Eye, and though as far as I know he never had anything to do with either of them, Frayn was absolutely in tune with the Zeitgeist; in fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I first came across the word ‘Zeitgeist’ in one of his columns, probably in the guise of a German art critic called Ludwig von Zeitgeist.
William Golding’s is not a large oeuvre: fifteen books, a play, an unfinished novel. Rereading everything, I am struck by the modesty of the pile through which I have worked, and the brevity of the books. He pared fiction down to bony essentials: an entire universe in the 223 pages of Lord of the Flies, or the 233 of The Inheritors. I wanted to try to identify what it is that sets him apart – on a pedestal, as far as I am concerned.
It was partly her attachment to another of B.B.’s books – Brendon Chase – that gave Jane Nissen the idea of reissuing classic children’s books that had slipped out of print when she retired from a senior position at Penguin in 1998. She had started out there when her children were young, under the legendary Kaye Webb, creator of the Puffin Club (recalled by Kate Dunn on p.31), determinedly working her way up from freelance reader – ‘sticking myself to the desk with Superglue’ – until she was taken on as a children’s editor. Then, after leaving to spend seven years at Methuen, the tides of publishing carried her back to Penguin again, as editorial director of the Hamish Hamilton children’s list, which Penguin had taken over.
At a desk beneath the dome of the British Museum Reading Room, as sombre Ph.D. types on either side of me pored over earnest looking volumes, I had to restrain myself from yelling for joy at item NN 20963: the catalogue number for French Polish by P. Y. Betts. It was her only book, a novel published by Gollancz in 1933. It looked as if nobody had opened it for some while – perhaps for more than fifty years.
While still relatively young, the brilliant cartoonist and illustrator George du Maurier went blind in one eye, probably as the result of a detached retina. This didn’t prevent him from joining the staff of Punch and doing wonderful work for it until his death in 1896. His best-known cartoon shows a chinless young curate taking the top off a boiled egg at breakfast with his bishop, and their exchange has entered the language: ‘I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.’ ‘Oh no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!’
Tsar Alexander II was warned that Turgenev’s collection of short stories, variously translated into English as Sketches from a Hunter’s Album or A Sportsman’s Notebook, was politically subversive. He read it, nonetheless, and later said it had influenced his decision in 1861 to liberate Russia’s 40 million serfs.
In my mid-twenties, having given up hope of a literary career, or any sensible career for that matter, I did what many desperate men do: I trained to become a lawyer. I mustered up an impressive amount of faux enthusiasm and forced myself to mug up on the more esoteric aspects of contract and tort. Needless to say, the façade did not last very long. Within weeks, I was scouring Dillons (as it was then) in Gower Street for something to distract me. I had read Simon Raven’s brilliantly wicked cricketing memoir Shadows on the Grass – once described by E. W. Swanton as ‘the filthiest book on cricket ever written’ – whilst at school, but had never thought to pursue his infamous ten-volume roman fleuve, Alms for Oblivion. Now here was my chance: I hungrily purchased the complete set.
Josephine Tey was a writer of detective stories during the classic era from the 1930s to the 1950s, when Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie, Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes and Dorothy Sayers were to the fore, when sleuths were gents, often displaying strong literary bents. Yet her most famous book, The Daughter of Time, published in 1951, is something of a sport, as much fact as fiction, as much to do with the fifteenth century as the 1950s. The Daughter of Time is Truth, according to the proverb on the title page, and the book is about who actually murdered the Princes in the Tower, the two male children of Edward IV. Josephine Tey had the brilliant idea of setting one of history’s great mysteries as a problem to be solved by her regular detective-hero, Alan Grant.
Some books announce their quality straight away. On p.3 of Small Talk at Wreyland, the author tells of an old lady looking out across her garden on a gorgeous summer afternoon. ‘She turned to me, and said, “I were just a-wonderin’ if Heaven be so very much better ’an this: ’cause, aless it were, I don’t know as I’d care for the change.”’
The writer was Cecil Torr, born in Surrey in 1857, whose grandfather lived at Wreyland, in the parish of Lustleigh on the edge of Dartmoor. As a child he often stayed with the old man, and in late middle age, after travelling widely, he gave up his London house, went to live in Wreyland in the house he had inherited, and never left.
The author is easy to spot as I walk through Christchurch airport. I recognize Owen Marshall Jones (he drops the surname for his nom de plume) from the photograph on the back of Coming Home in the Dark, one of the most sublime collections of short stories published anywhere in the world in the past quarter century. Why else come to Timaru, where its author is resident?
For me a home without Period Piece is like a house without a cat – lacking an essential cheering and comfortable element. I have loved Gwen Raverat’s memoir of growing up in Cambridge in the 1890s ever since I first read it twenty years ago when recuperating from a bad bout of ’flu, at that blissful moment when you are feeling better but not quite strong enough to get up and do anything. I can still recall the delicious feeling of reading and dozing, dozing and reading, snug in the gas-lit world of Victorian Cambridge, until the January afternoon outside the bedroom window gradually turned purple and faded into dark.
Chandler himself defined literature as ‘any sort of writing that generates its own heat’, which fairly describes his own best work. No other crime writer could work the same narcotic chemistry in my experience. I relished the hyperbole (‘a rough sky-blue sports coat not wider at the shoulders than a two-car garage’), the terse dialogue, the cast of outsize gangsters, millionaires, petty crooks, embittered law enforcers and femmes fatales who crossed their legs a little carelessly. And Marlowe, for ever pitted against the black knights of the beautiful corrupt city, on $25 a day plus expenses.
Every Thursday morning for twenty years and more, the Orkney writer George Mackay Brown cleared a breakfast-table space among the teacups and the marmalade and, sitting with his elbows among the crumbs, picked up a cheap biro and jotted down 400 words on a notepad. It was a letter to the local newspaper, The Orcadian, for publication the following Thursday, and as such was written to entertain an island community of fewer than 2,000 souls. Through the small window of the simple council house – just a few steps away – the sea glimmered and whispered.
When Peter Robb first visited Sicily in 1974, he was so taken by the food in Palermo’s Vucciria market that he wrote down this description in his notebook: ‘Purple and black eggplant, light green and dark green zucchini, red and yellow peppers, boxes of egg-shaped San Marzano tomatoes. Spiked Indian figs with a spreading blush, grapes, black, purple, yellow and white, long yellow honeydew melons, round furrowed cantaloupes, slashed wedges of watermelon in red, white and green and studded with big black seeds, yellow peaches and percocche, purple figs and green figs, little freckled apricots.’
I must have been about 12 when I first opened James’s Collected Ghost Stories and turned to ‘A School Story’. As a boy who enjoyed gruesome yarns and, more surprisingly, Latin grammar, I was delighted to discover that the two could go together. Briefly, thus: a boy, asked for a sentence using memento + genitive, comes up, apparently out of the blue, with memento putei inter quatuor taxos – ‘I remember the well among the four yews’ – at which his Latin master has a funny turn.
I was a gluttonous reader, possessive and insatiable. On my desk before me sits a little pile of three-and-sixpenny story books, so freighted with emotion that I can hardly bear to open them. The first one I pick up is Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green. The brown Sellotape splinters as I turn the pages for the first time in nearly forty years. Tucked inside is an order coupon that I forgot to post, with a cross in the box next to Aesop’s Fables and, sure enough, on the title page is a sticker showing a lion and a unicorn, and standing between them is a puffin with his beak buried in a book. ‘From the library of . . .’ underneath which I have written ‘K. S. H. Dunn – MINE’.
At first I enjoyed being the only person ever to have read The Dark of Summer. It was like coming across a deserted beach that can only be reached by boat. But then, glancing down Linklater’s exhausting bibliography (twenty-three novels, ten plays, three children’s books, six collections of short stories, three biographies and more), the thought began to niggle at me: what had happened to all those books? I instigated a search. ‘Eric Linklater?’ said one second-hand bookshop owner as he went downstairs to rummage about in his basement. ‘I should be ashamed if I didn’t have anything by him. He’s rather out of fashion these days, isn’t he?’ Another said, ‘Eric Linklater? Must have, somewhere . . . sort of middlebrow?’
When Ancestral Voices was first to be published in 1975, Chatto & Windus knew that it was ‘Heywood Hill’s sort of book’. I asked for the earliest possible proof copy and signed up a large number of customers for the finished book. In my innocence I told Helen Lady Dashwood (‘Hellbags’) that the diaries covered the period when Jim lived at West Wycombe, and she ordered an early copy. A few days after it was published, she appeared in the shop carrying her copy as if with tongs, and asked for it to be credited to her account: she ‘could not have this book in her house’.
Not everyone has dinner with Winston Churchill and watches him re-enact the Battle of Jutland with wine glasses and decanters, puffing cigar smoke to represent the guns; or gets into a spitting match at a bus stop; or snorts cocaine with Lord Berners (the Uncle Merlin of Love in a Cold Climate); or is told by Diana Mosley how Hitler loved England and wept when Singapore fell to the Japanese; or hears from John Betjeman of his first teenage affair, in a punt with the son of a vicar; or can describe as Jim could a vast range of riveting and also somehow illuminating encounters with friends as varied as the Mitfords, Cyril Connolly, Mick Jagger, Cecil Beaton, Anthony Powell, Bruce Chatwin and Ivy Compton-Burnett – as well as the livelier end of the aristocracy and the other luminaries, sympathetic or strange, brought to light by the National Trust.
J. L. Carr was a primary school head in Kettering, Northamptonshire, who took early retirement from teaching so he could become a full-time writer, and who supported himself, his wife and his son in the meantime by setting up and running from his home a publishing house, the Quince Tree Press, which produced a series of ‘little books’, mainly selections of the great English poets, and county maps that Carr drew and illustrated himself. Probably the most famous of the ‘little books’ – designed to fit into an envelope and light enough for an ordinary postage stamp – is Carr’s Dictionary of Extraordinary Cricketers. Carr wrote eight novels, one of which is, I am as certain as it is ever possible to be, a masterpiece. One cannot credit him with the amplitude which T. S. Eliot identified as one of the characteristics of greatness in a writer, because even that masterpiece – A Month in the Country – is very short, almost a novella, but it contains more of the fullness of life than most very long novels.
There came to the house a charming letter, a photograph of ‘my paradise of a small garden’ and a parcel of some of the most enchanting volumes I had ever seen. Printed in India (of which more below), they were bound in sari cloth, each in a different rich colour and pattern, and each embossed in gold. They smelled slightly musty, as if they had been stored in someone’s cellar. A number of typographical errors had been elegantly corrected with the author’s fountain pen, and each volume autographed in the same lovely hand. Finally, these little books turned out to contain not just recipes – Onion Soup without the Fuss, Dandelion Wine, Mincemeat Tel Aviv – but a selection of poems and the hugely entertaining story of the author’s life.
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.’
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.
I attacked my new assignment as a Middle East correspondent with the alacrity of a baying hound running down a wanted man. I loaded up on the standard books on the region by all the standard experts: Hitti, Hourani, Nutting, Glubb, Fromkin, Shlaim, Lewis. I consumed their separate narratives, cross-referencing one against the other and triangulating each for bias. I was a machine in perpetual motion; the more I read, the more I needed to know. By the end of my three-year stint, I had accumulated a working library of stolid non-fiction accounts of the Middle East, from the days of the Caliphate to the Second Intifada. In 2001 I took leave to write my own book.
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 were delighted to host an evening with Hisham Matar. Hisham was interviewed by Sarah Anderson, founder of the Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill. This was the third in an event series with Slightly Foxed and the Biographers’ Club.
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.