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These Old Bones

A few days before my birth my father returned from an Arctic expedition. He’d been away for several months on Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole – exploring the glaciers, fjords and mountains east of Ny-Alesund, earth’s most northerly civilian settlement at 78° 55’ N. It was night and raining hard when he got back. From Svalbard he’d flown down to Tromsø, then Luton, then caught several trains and finally a bus to Penclawdd, a village in south Wales. My mother, sitting by the window, saw him walking up the shining road, pack on his back. Once home he was amazed to see how pregnant she was, how round her belly.
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Cheers!

Cheers!

Sayre’s Law states: ‘In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.’ I’ve noticed this in the world of booze. Some people take the question of whether a Martini should be shaken or stirred, or whether to put fruit in an Old Fashioned, very seriously. For a writer on the subject, there are two ways out of this bind: one is to take a bluff no-nonsense approach and admit that in the end it doesn’t really matter. The other is to take it so seriously that it verges on but doesn’t quite drop into ridiculousness. You can see the contrasting approaches in my two favourite writers on the subject, Kingsley Amis and Bernard DeVoto.
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Just the Way It Is

Just the Way It Is

I first came across William Trevor in the early nineties when my son came home from school with The Children of Dynmouth, his GCSE set text. I’ve been an ardent fan ever since, although I must admit that in one’s robust forties Trevor’s themes (sadness, loneliness, cruelty, the sheer arbitrariness of life’s awfulness) can be relished in a way that becomes increasingly difficult with age, as one’s skin thins and that arbitrariness begins to bite.
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The Magnetism of Murder

In 1957 I was a schoolboy in what was then known as Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, when Arnold Jones, my English teacher, insisted that we all go with him to hear his compatriot, the Welsh author and actor Emlyn Williams, who was on tour with his one-man tribute to Dylan Thomas, A Boy Growing Up. This performance was a watershed in my appreciation of the spoken and written word. Williams held us spellbound for three hours: a small middle-aged, grey-haired man on a bare stage, bringing to life a child’s Christmas in Wales, making us laugh at Thomas’s self-portrait as a schoolboy drawing ‘a wild guess below the waist’, as a Young Dog with a beer bottle stuck on his finger, and then unexpectedly reducing us to pin-dropping silence with ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and ‘Death shall have no dominion’. For me, this was the beginning of a lifetime’s enjoyment of the work not just of Dylan Thomas but of Emlyn Williams himself.
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Scaling Gibbon’s Everest

Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788) must rank among the best known of unread or partly read books. At over 3,000 pages it is written in the sometimes convoluted style of the eighteenth century and lingers over details which mean little now to most readers, not least disputes over the nature of the Holy Trinity. Yet this Everest of a book asks to be scaled and in the end retirement offered me leisure and the necessary oxygen to make the attempt.
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Accentuating the Positive

Accentuating the Positive

According to my journal I first read Molly Hughes’s memoir A London Child of the 1870s in October 2005, ‘a record of Islington life so charming and droll I’m puzzled as to why I’d not come across it before’. I might not have come across it then either had my wife not given me a copy, just reissued by Persephone Books in its appealing dove-grey livery with William Morris endpapers. It was a perfect choice for someone obsessed by Victorian London in general and Victorian Islington in particular. To my delight the author and her family had lived at No. 1 Canonbury Park North, an address about five minutes’ walk from where I write this. Their house is no longer standing, though the references to Upper Street, Essex Road and Highbury New Park sound a welcoming refrain, and such is the peculiar immediacy of the writing that it takes no very great leap of imagination to see an organ-grinder on the pavement, or a child bowling a hoop, or a tram upon the Holloway Road.
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1st December 2020

Slightly Foxed Issue 68: From the Editors

After probably the strangest year that most of us have ever experienced, London is starting to feel more familiar. There are lighted office windows around Hoxton Square, and there’s traffic again in Old Street, now including shoals of bikes, some darting in and out of the cars and vans like minnows, some wobbling dangerously. There are a lot of new and inexperienced bike riders in London these days, and whether you’re walking or driving you have to look out. At Slightly Foxed the office is buzzing, and readers and contributors have been active too, putting pen to paper, or rather finger to key, to give the two of us plenty to read after lockdown. Sadly we had to cancel Readers’ Day this year, but we’ve booked the Art Workers’ Guild for 6 November 2021, and we look forward very much to seeing you there.
- Gail Pirkis & Hazel Wood
From the editors
A Merry Malady

A Merry Malady

Let’s begin with a brief quiz. Have you ever arrived home, triumphant with glee over your latest bookshop find, only to discover that you already have the book you just purchased? Have you ever attempted to bring home unobserved a stack of newly purchased books, and thus avoid the censorious lift of the eyebrows of loved ones which so often greets your latest acquisitions? Have you ever begun reading a book you’ve been looking forward to for years, even decades, only to discover your own notes in the margins? (If so, you are a bibliolathas.) Are you on first-name terms with the staff of three bookshops or more? Have you ever had to reinforce a sagging floor because of the weight of your books? Have you ever had to add a room on to your home or move to a larger one to accommodate them?
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A Lost Enchanted World

A Lost Enchanted World

Not long ago, in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, I was transfixed by a vast oil painting; Viktor Vasnetsov’s Bogatyrs (Men of Power) – astride their horses, one brown, one black, one white. I felt a thrill of recognition. Here were the three brothers, born to a poor widow in a single night and named Evening, Midnight and Sunrise, ‘all three as strong as any of the strong men and mighty bogatyrs who have shaken this land of Russia with their tread’.
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