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A Tremendous Innings

A Tremendous Innings

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.
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First Class Mail

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.
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A Writer’s Bestiary

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.
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Hooked

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.
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Cutting it Fine

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.
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Wrestling with the Amazons

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.
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Napoleon’s Last Garden

Napoleon’s Last Garden

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.
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Having a Good Cry

‘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.
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A Lost World

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.
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Listening in to Prynne

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.
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Full Steam Ahead and Damn the Torpedoes

Full Steam Ahead and Damn the Torpedoes

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).
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The Trouble with Sefton

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.
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