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The Tricks War Plays

The Tricks War Plays

One day early in the First World War, an inexperienced young doctor serving with the Royal Fusiliers examined a sergeant who was ‘out of sorts’. The man had a reputation for being imperturbable on patrol, but now he sat in a billet in Armentières staring at the fire, unshaven, slovenly dressed and silent. The doctor could find nothing physically wrong but gave him permission to rest. The following day, when everyone else had gone up the line, the sergeant blew his head off. ‘I thought little of this at the time,’ the doctor wrote later. ‘It seemed a silly thing to do.’
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The Man from Department K

I might never have discovered James Munro’s John Craig thrillers had I not seen the film of the last of them, The Innocent Bystanders, in early 1973. Christina Foyle remarked at the time of Craig’s first appearance in The Man Who Sold Death (1964) that his creator wrote like a cross between Ian Fleming and John le Carré, but although the book and its successors were well-received, Munro never found the same fame. The film sank without trace, despite an excellent cast headed by Stanley Baker, but it did inspire me to seek out the Craig books. I loved them.
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Strolling with Dickens

When I was a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s I believed that my father was a close personal friend of Charles Dickens. They must, I thought, have met at various inns in London and shared jokes and stories and enormous slap-up breakfasts with baked meats and ale. Samuel Pickwick would often be there, too, and Dickens would address my father as ‘VSP’, as all his friends did. We lived in the country for much of that time, in a house which I imagined was just like Dickens’s Dingley Dell. There was a walled garden, with a little summer-house, and I half expected the Fat Boy to pop up from behind the rhubarb and make my flesh creep.
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The Eyesight of Wasps

The Eyesight of Wasps

I discovered Niko Tinbergen’s Curious Naturalists as a student. I was reading psychology and the course had just begun with a look at animal behaviour, which involved a grasp of scientific method and thus a lot of headache-inducing maths. In a bookshop, glumly casting round for some background reading with a lighter touch than the papers I’d been given, I happened on this remarkable book, published surprisingly by Country Life. It was about seagulls, savage wasps, camouflage and other matters now suddenly on my agenda but, because it was for ordinary readers rather than specialists, the ordeals of theory, statistical bafflement and so forth were wonderfully absent.
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A Lonely Furrow

A Lonely Furrow

John Stewart Collis hated to be referred to as ‘a neglected writer’. He said that if people read that a writer is neglected their natural response is to say, ‘Well, let’s neglect him some more.’ All the same it is hard to avoid saying that Collis was, and is now, a neglected writer, this despite his having written at least one book, While Following the Plough, which deserves to be treated as one of the classic books about farming, nature and country life, on a level with those of Richard Jefferies or W. H. Hudson.
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Perfectly designed to curl up with | Slightly Foxed Editions

Perfectly designed to curl up with | Slightly Foxed Editions

Greetings from No. 53 Hoxton Square where spirits are high, wrapping paper is running off rolls and post bags are filling up quickly as we ready ourselves to wave off the post van one last time and close the office for Christmas. There’s still time for us to help with literary gifts however, and we’d like to draw your attention to our Slightly Foxed Editions – beautifully produced pocket hardbacks, just the right size to hold in the hand and with a ribbon marker to keep your place. Perfectly designed to curl up with, these reissues of classic memoirs are highly individual and absorbing reads. So whether you’re in need of a good book or a present for someone you’re fond of, do seize the chance to stock up now.
Saying It with Books

Saying It with Books

One of my favourite books is Wolfgang Kohler’s The Mentality of Apes. I haven’t actually read more than a couple of paragraphs at a time because the contents are of less significance to me than the cover. It is an old paperback with the characteristic turquoise cover that all Pelican books had, and the simplicity of the cover design allows the title to stand out clearly. I take it with me to meetings that I don’t want to go to and place it, obtrusively, on the table, title up.
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Freudful Myth-Information

Freudful Myth-Information

As in 1066 and All That, what carries the best jokes of And Now All This into something like poetry is an excess of wit. When the ‘Absolutely General Editors’ speak of sleepers entering ‘the land of Polymorpheus’, they casually combine their reading of Freud with their classical education. Elsewhere, ancient literature gets a whole chapter of learned mockery. ‘Myth-Information’ sets out to show – like many more pessimistic Modernist works – that ‘Western Culture is fundamentally myth-guided’. Proof comes in the form of the ‘Arthurian Cycle’, which looks like a Penny Farthing designed by William Morris, and is ‘steered by faith (or witchcraft)’.
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Jeremy Makes a Stand

I’m not sure how old I was when I first read Hugh Walpole’s Jeremy, but I think I was 9 or 10, for I had just gone away to boarding school, and I can remember the stab of longing that that description of the Cole family, on their way to their annual holiday at a seaside farm in the West Country, gave me. Exiled in a red-brick prep-school on the flat and muddy coast of the Bristol Channel, I dreamed with a desperate, nostalgic homesickness of the Devon lanes and cliffs and sandy beaches I’d left behind, and the sound and smell of the sea – the proper sea. The school holidays couldn’t come soon enough, and I knew exactly how Jeremy felt.
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Umbrellas at Dawn

Umbrellas at Dawn

It is hard today to appreciate the extent of Hugh Walpole’s success. Not only did his novels – which had appeared annually since his first triumph, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, in 1911 – consistently head the best-seller lists, but he was also a well-known public figure on both sides of the Atlantic. At the time of his death in 1941, he was giving a series of wartime propaganda broadcasts to the USA called ‘Hugh Walpole Talking’. His views were sought, his opinions respected. Hugh Walpole was master of his game. Yet there has always been a problem about the reputation of this seemingly dominant figure.
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A Visit from God

I have always liked reading and pubs, and reading in pubs. By reading I mean sitting alone in a corner of the pub with a pint of bitter and a good book, not the Good Book – that might attract unwelcome attention. There are several conditions to be met. The pub should be quiet, and music-free. It should have few customers, and these also quiet and dotted around the smallish bar at a fairly unsocial equidistance from each other. Any conversation should be infrequent and sotto voce, limited perhaps to the names of racehorses or someone who hasn’t been in lately because he died last week. The best time is after two o’clock, when the lunchtimers have returned to work or afternoon telly. There is at least one such place remaining. It is called The Green Man and is situated in a rural West Midlands village. I am not going to name the village, because the brewery will immediately swoop and render it intolerable. As it is, it still has a public bar, a saloon bar, a snug and a small walled garden. It was in this garden that, fittingly, I first read Kingsley Amis’s novel The Green Man.
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Travels with the Father of History

Travels with the Father of History

You’d think, if you read History at university, that you might come across the man who invented it. These days, that would be a quaint hope. During my stint at Cambridge in the early Nineties, I encountered witches and deviants, demography and Dickens, consumer revolutions and the medieval kingdom of Aragon. I came across beggars and Bedlam, early Christian thought and the English Civil War. We had social and economic history, psycho-history, feminist history, oral history and micro-history. There was a brief stab at Rome from Augustus, but that was as ancient as we got. Of Herodotus, the Father of History, there was no sign.
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Sugar Dreams

Sugar Dreams

Even if the south-eastern seaboard of Africa has never been a Bloomsbury, it has had its moments. Angus Wilson’s mother was a Durban girl, and Fernando Pessoa spent his schooldays there. But given the few exceptions, that littoral has hardly been bookish. Among the 250-strong community in which I grew up, all but about thirty were Zulu-speaking workers and their families, many of whom were illiterate. Of the remainder, most were Indian tractor drivers and mechanics and their wives and children, who spoke Tamil and Telugu by choice. That left only a handful of us who had English as our mother tongue. And that linguistic ratio was repeated across much of the surrounding countryside.
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On the Lost Isle

On the Lost Isle

Some months ago I became a British citizen. This wasn’t such a stretch for a native of the States, but it put me in mind of other transplanted people and I have been rereading some old favourites to celebrate. Perversely, the most resonant thing I’ve read isn’t British at all: a tale written in French by a Belgian who became American and settled on an island near my family’s summer home in the northern state of Maine. It is a quiet piece of literary grisaille called Un homme obscur, ‘An Obscure Man’.
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