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A Pirate of Exquisite Mind

A Pirate of Exquisite Mind

We found William Dampier by chance. He was a small footnote in a book about buccaneers – those ‘original pirates of the Caribbean’ – which mentioned that there was a painting of him in the National Portrait Gallery. This seemed a strange outcome for a man who had pursued such a violent career and my husband and I went to see the picture. Entitled William Dampier – Pirate and Hydrographer, it shows a lean, strong-featured man with brown, shoulder-length hair and a watchful expression. There are no earrings, cutlasses or other Jack Sparrow-type flourishes. Instead, Dampier is wearing a plain coat with a white neck-cloth and holding a book, gold-tooled spine out, towards the onlooker.
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The Tape-recorder Man

In the mid-twentieth century a new device came into common use, enabling every Tom, Dick and Harry to record and play back sounds stored on magnetic tape. Arriving some 500 years after Gutenberg, the tape-recorder nevertheless had a small part to play in the preparation of text for print. A handful of enterprising writers began using it to record interviews with people whose opinions were (they judged) of interest to the reading public. The recordings were then edited, arranged in a palatable order, and published in book form. These interviews were more detailed and accurate than anything previously thought possible, except by the most tempestuous exponents of shorthand. However, critics of the new approach soon emerged. Were the books worth having? they asked. Was this ‘art’? Was it indeed proper authorship? And if so, who were the authors: those who spoke into the tape-recorders, or those who switched them on?
SF magazine subscribers only
Birds, Bees and Scorpions

Birds, Bees and Scorpions

If one were searching for the perfect antidote to Mis-lit one would find it triumphantly in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. First published in 1956 and in print ever since, the book is surely one of the most enjoyable English memoirs of the second half of the twentieth century. Every page is a celebration of the colours, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations of the then unspoilt island of Corfu where the Durrell family arrived in March 1935 and where they lived until their expulsion from Eden in 1939 on the outbreak of war. It is beautifully written, with some astonishingly vivid and exact descriptions, whether of capturing a water snake in a stream or watching a lizard in its progress across a nocturnal ceiling, and it gets away, effortlessly, with all sorts of things one isn’t meant to get away with, not least the antics and tics of Funny Foreigners.
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Listening to the Heartbeat

Ryszard Kapuscinski understood the pitfalls of news reporting perfectly. He eschewed any pretence of being a dashing correspondent and wrote of the strange drive that propelled him to dangerous, forgotten places, often lonely but without an ounce of self-pity. As the agency reporter for Polska Agencja Prasowa (PAP) covering the entire African continent, Kapuscinski witnessed the dramatic birth of the ‘developing world’. He was a most unlikely witness, a Pole from a small town swallowed up by the Soviet Union who walked a tightrope when it came to surviving as a journalist. He went on to report from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet Union. Kapuscinski witnessed more than 27 coups and revolutions, befriended Che Guevara, once awoke from a malarial daze to find Idi Amin standing over his hospital bed and was four times threatened with execution.
SF magazine subscribers only
Helluva Hotel

Helluva Hotel

The Ritz Carlton/Splendide was to be Bemelmans’s home for many years, and his book about it, which first appeared in 1956, has now been reissued in a slightly truncated form together with other stories about life under Lucullan tyranny. The new edition is entitled Hotel Bemelmans and is accompanied by scores of the author’s brilliant illustrations which resemble sketches that Edward Lear might have dashed off had he chosen the life of a gay boulevardier. (The bar in the Carlyle Hotel on New York’s Upper East Side still has murals painted by Bemelmans himself, by the way.)
SF magazine subscribers only

Recognizing an Imagination Need

During Stalin’s purges in Russia, millions of people were sent to work in Siberian labour camps, and many died from lack of food, brutal punishments, overwork or the bitter cold. There were, however, some remarkable instances of survival. In the introduction to his novel The Forbidden Forest, the philosopher Mircea Eliade tells how some prisoners in one camp survived their ordeal. While those in other dormitories died at the rate of up to twelve a week, the prisoners of one dormitory stayed alive because they listened every night to an old woman telling fairy tales. Each prisoner gave up a precious portion of his daily bread ration in order to help feed the old woman so she could save her strength for the nightly storytelling sessions.
SF magazine subscribers only

Brother Juniper’s Inquisition

Sometimes, confessing to a favourite book can bring a flush of embarrassment to the cheeks. We tend to make such selections at a susceptible age and they don’t necessarily stand up to the test of time. ‘Isn’t that a bit . . . well . . . teenaged?’ some inquirer will ask with a shrivelling look. I am only too aware of this snooty equivalent of the lifted lorgnette as I admit to a long-standing love of Thornton Wilder’s little slip of a book: The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
SF magazine subscribers only
Great Escapes

Great Escapes

At various times in my life, from my twenties to my fifties, I planned to travel through France by boat. As real life gradually rendered the achievement of this ambition ever more unlikely, I took to reading in a random way books by people who had done it. About twenty years ago I came across a large paperback called Isabel and the Sea. I knew nothing about it or its author George Millar, but I consumed it greedily, loving every word. It was the classic ‘through France and across the Mediterranean by boat’ book. Later, I tracked down and consumed equally greedily all the other books that George Millar had written, most of which were then out of print.
SF magazine subscribers only
Episode 16: Moving in Royal Circles

Episode 16: Moving in Royal Circles

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.
38 minutes
More Capability Brown than Dewey Decimal | Slightly Foxed New Year Clean

More Capability Brown than Dewey Decimal | Slightly Foxed New Year Clean

Greetings from Hoxton Square where we’ve returned well-rested and ready for the year ahead following a relaxing Christmas break. Now our thoughts are turning to the annual office overhaul: shelf-shuffling, book-shifting and making space in preparation for a new year’s worth of publications. Therefore, if you’d like to help us clear a few shelves and take the opportunity to stock up on paperbacks, back issues, Foxed Cubs and any other tempting bookish goods we’d be most grateful. To bring some cheer to the start of the year, we’re continuing our special festive December offers until the end of January.
The Power of Stealing Hearts

The Power of Stealing Hearts

Not a little of the appeal of Kilvert’s Diary for its early readership was the total contrast it provided to contemporary horrors. What could offer a better escape than the largely unruffled beauties, certainties and tranquillity of the high Victorian period to be found there, and in Trollope’s novels, equally popular in the war years? As Plomer wrote to the novelist Elizabeth Bowen when he first read the diary, ‘It’s as good as the Caledonian Market,’ then the happy hunting ground for Victoriana.
SF magazine subscribers only

The Truth of the Heart

I grew up in a house on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a bay. There was an upstairs drawing-room which was never used, and in the evenings when I was a little girl, I would go up there and close the door. Kneeling on the window-seat, I would gaze out at the sunset over the sea and the clouds banking on the horizon, and escape into my imagination. In those clouds I saw horses and chariots, marching legions, the thronged streets of medieval towns, knights in armour, great ships in full sail on a golden sea – vivid images from the books my father read me. The worlds they conjured up were consoling and utterly real to me, and I lived in them more than I lived in the present.

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