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Cooking for Love

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.
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Tank Tracks

Tank Tracks

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.
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Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

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.
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. . . and Tempests and Doldrums

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.
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The Man Who Read the Land

The Man Who Read the Land

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.
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A Hare’s Breadth

A Hare’s Breadth

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.
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Funny Side of the Street

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.
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The Golden Thread

The Golden Thread

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.
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Quite Mesmerizing

Quite Mesmerizing

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!’
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He Stayed the Course

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.
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Wrestling with a Fine Woman

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.
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Better ‘an Heaven

Better ‘an Heaven

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.
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