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Rosemary Sutcliff | Sword Song & The Shield Ring

Rosemary Sutcliff | Sword Song & The Shield Ring

‘Sutcliff was a superb writer with a classicist’s grasp of the era, a poet’s eye for nature and a devilish sense of plot. Fiction this evergreen cannot fail to uplift.’ David Mitchell We’re pleased to report that the final two titles in our Slightly Foxed Cubs series of Rosemary Sutcliff novels, Sword Song and The Shield Ring, are both published on 1 September. We know that many of you have already placed orders for these books, either as part of a limited-edition set of all seven novels or as single titles. As thanks for your enthusiasm and support, we’ve dispatched your copies in advance of publication and they will be with you very soon, if not already, so please do look out for them in the post. The series of Roman and post-Roman novels that began with The Eagle of the Ninth in the Sussex downland has, by the last two books, moved to the north-west coast of England and the Hebridean islands, where the Vikings are expanding their empire . . .
The Price of Virtue

The Price of Virtue

Hotel du Lac was Anita Brookner’s fourth novel, published in 1984. To the consternation of many and the incredulity of the author, it won the Booker Prize that year. The photograph taken after the announcement shows an author wide-eyed with disbelief. And not just Ms Brookner. One of the judges, the late great Sir Malcolm Bradbury, consoled Julian Barnes, also shortlisted, with the words: ‘Bad luck, Julian – the wrong book won.’ With the greatest respect, Sir Malcolm, there are those of us who disagree. Hotel du Lac is the work of a supremely gifted novelist at the top of her game. Not just elegant, insightful and thought-provoking, but still, after many readings, laugh-out-loud funny. So it is pleasing to know from a work colleague that, for the whole of the next day, Anita was completely elated.

A Strangulation of the Soul

It was dusk on a winter’s day, many years ago now, when I settled down to read the prison letters of Dennis Nilsen, the most prolific murderer in British history. They had been donated to the Royal Society of Literature, where I worked, to raise money at an auction at Sotheby’s, and they were chilling. Written in hard-pressed-down black biro, the words were crammed on the pages with no breathing space – a graphologist had described them as indicating ‘a strangulation of the soul’ – and they bristled with contempt and fury against everything and everyone. But Nilsen’s critical savagery was never turned on himself – strange, as he had fatally strangled fifteen men.
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A Smooth Man in a Trilby

A Smooth Man in a Trilby

I was 13 and mad about horses when I was presented with Brat Farrar. The name of its author, Josephine Tey, meant nothing to me at the time and the title didn’t tell me much either, but it had a picture of a horse on the cover, and that was enough for me. It proved to be the story of an imposture in which the reader knows more than the characters. I read it then and loved it, and I still do. Some years later, browsing through a box of second-hand books outside a small antique shop, I came across another of Tey’s books and, remembering the first, went in and bought it. It cost 10p. Thus began a lifelong devotion.
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The Ubiquitous Canadian

Charles Ritchie (1906–95) was a witty, cultivated Canadian diplomat whose voluminous diaries, a blend of anecdote, commentary and confession, were an ‘escape hatch’ from the confines of his profession. Much of what he wrote was too candid to be published. For instance in 1962, when stationed in Washington, he met Harold Macmillan, who was trying to ingratiate himself with President Kennedy. Macmillan, he waspishly noted, ‘drips “manner” like a buttered crumpet’. This must have been the occasion on which Kennedy disconcerted Macmillan, a complaisant husband, by revealing that he got a ‘terrible headache’ if he didn’t have a woman every two or three days. Unlike Macmillan, Ritchie would have understood. In January 1941, having kissed goodbye to his current squeeze, a pretty young ballerina who was off on tour, he looked forward to ‘early and varied infidelities during her absence’.
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Gone Fishing

Gone Fishing

For me, some books act like a time machine, leading me back into my past, reminding me of how it felt to be young. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the effect is intense. Sensations that I had forgotten arise afresh, and the world seems new again. Hugh Falkus’s The Stolen Years (1965) is one of those books, evoking for me the simplicity and innocence of boyhood. Hugh Falkus’s The Stolen Years (1965) is one of those books, evoking for me the simplicity and innocence of boyhood. Not that his upbringing was anything like mine: far from it. He was a child of the inter-war period, inhabiting first a converted Thames barge on the Essex coast, and later an old sixty-ton, straight-stemmed cutter, moored in a Devon estuary; I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, in a house in West London. Nevertheless, his reminiscences stir my own.
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Plenty to Say

Plenty to Say

A few months after my mother died, my sister and I returned home to clear out her possessions. I felt unsentimental about most of them. I readily threw away clothes, keeping only a cardigan that was the last thing she wore, and still smelled of her; I swept her extensive collection of toiletries into a large bin bag. From her jewellery, I squirrelled away only a pair of opal earrings, to wear on my wedding day. The exception to this general rule was her book collection. Mum was a voracious reader. When I picture our birthdays, holidays, family evenings together, I always see her with a book in her hand, and I consider a love of reading my most important inheritance. So I kept as many of her books as I could, lugging them from Newcastle to London in flimsy rolling suitcases. Among them was a complete collection of Mary Wesley’s novels.
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Paper Trails

I have always been taken with the idea of treasure-hunting. Not that I have done much of it myself. I do recall searching (without success) for a reputed abandoned gold mine on Tom Ball Mountain in the New England Berkshires, and I once went so far as to put together an anthology of treasure-hunting stories, which didn’t sell very well. But frankly, for me treasure-hunting is purely an intellectual sport, which is probably just as well. Reading about unexpected discoveries and adventurous expeditions is on the whole more practical than crashing through underbrush and keeping a weather eye for black bears, especially at my age.
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A Down-to-Earth Visionary

I read Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City in 1969, when it was published, and I have a hardback first edition of it, still in its original dust wrapper. When I rediscovered my copy and reread it in the autumn of 2019, to prepare for a seminar at the University of East Anglia to celebrate her centenary, I found that I had been using a bus ticket as a bookmark. I must have been reading it on the No. 24 bus, on my way to or from South End Green in Hampstead. I had forgotten what London bus tickets looked like. The printing was a pale mauve. I couldn’t read that volume on a bus now. It is far too heavy. I can hardly read it in bed.
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Jocelin’s Folly

Jocelin’s Folly

Across the east end of the nave of Canterbury Cathedral, where I was a volunteer guide for over a decade, there is a stone strainer arch erected by Prior Thomas Goldstone 500 years ago. It is a kind of tiebar, one of six which bind together the columns that support Bell Harry Tower, the cathedral’s dominant feature. The arch is essential to the integrity of the building’s central structure and is decorated with flowered designs and an inscription. On either side of the Prior’s initials and his rebus – three golden pebbles, a visual pun on his surname – there is the first verse of the psalm that begins Non nobis Domine (‘Not unto us, O Lord, but unto thy name give glory . . .’).
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Last Waltz in Vienna | From the Slightly Foxed Bookshelves

Last Waltz in Vienna | From the Slightly Foxed Bookshelves

Introducing the latest addition to the Slightly Foxed Editions list, No. 56: George Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna. Published 1 September. In February 1938, the grand Konzerthaus in Vienna was in full, glorious swing; bands were playing, there was dancing and singing and plenty of beer. It was the first ball ever attended by the 17-year-old Georg Klaar, and he stayed until the very last waltz. But on 11 March, lorries began thundering into the streets, filled with uniformed men waving swastikas and shouting ‘Death to Jews’. Austria was now betrayed and had been annexed by the German Third Reich. Barely four years later, Georg Klaar had become George Clare and was serving in the British army, and his parents had been rounded up and taken to Auschwitz. Only with hindsight can George discern the complex reasons for his family’s destruction, and for the whole appalling waste of war. This is a profoundly moving, honest and compassionate memoir, remarkably devoid of self-pity, though not of anger.
Elegy to a Family

Elegy to a Family

I have a photo of Aunt Margaret standing outside Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, beret jauntily askew. It is 1937 and, aged 28, she is on her return with a friend from Czechoslovakia, travelling in an Austin Ruby. Margaret – think Joyce Grenfell in St Trinian’s – always maintained she crossed Central Europe without difficulty despite losing her passport. It seems improbable but maybe not impossible. Regardless, the small black-and-white image enduringly appeals because it was taken amid perilous events in Austria of which Margaret, in her artless exuberance for life, was probably unaware. I wanted to know more of that time.

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