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I have been devoted to your podcast for over a year; it could be improved only by being more frequent. Every book I have ordered from you has been a delight; nothing disappoints. I receive your emails with pleasure, and that’s saying a lot. Slightly Foxed is a source of content . . . ’
K. Nichols, Washington, USA

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Down These Mean Streets

Down These Mean Streets

Chandler himself defined literature as ‘any sort of writing that generates its own heat’, which fairly describes his own best work. No other crime writer could work the same narcotic chemistry in my experience. I relished the hyperbole (‘a rough sky-blue sports coat not wider at the shoulders than a two-car garage’), the terse dialogue, the cast of outsize gangsters, millionaires, petty crooks, embittered law enforcers and femmes fatales who crossed their legs a little carelessly. And Marlowe, for ever pitted against the black knights of the beautiful corrupt city, on $25 a day plus expenses.
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Orkney’s Prospero

Orkney’s Prospero

Every Thursday morning for twenty years and more, the Orkney writer George Mackay Brown cleared a breakfast-table space among the teacups and the marmalade and, sitting with his elbows among the crumbs, picked up a cheap biro and jotted down 400 words on a notepad. It was a letter to the local newspaper, The Orcadian, for publication the following Thursday, and as such was written to entertain an island community of fewer than 2,000 souls. Through the small window of the simple council house – just a few steps away – the sea glimmered and whispered.
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In the Garden of Death and Plenty

In the Garden of Death and Plenty

When Peter Robb first visited Sicily in 1974, he was so taken by the food in Palermo’s Vucciria market that he wrote down this description in his notebook: ‘Purple and black eggplant, light green and dark green zucchini, red and yellow peppers, boxes of egg-shaped San Marzano tomatoes. Spiked Indian figs with a spreading blush, grapes, black, purple, yellow and white, long yellow honeydew melons, round furrowed cantaloupes, slashed wedges of watermelon in red, white and green and studded with big black seeds, yellow peaches and percocche, purple figs and green figs, little freckled apricots.’
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Now We’re Shut in for the Night

Now We’re Shut in for the Night

I must have been about 12 when I first opened James’s Collected Ghost Stories and turned to ‘A School Story’. As a boy who enjoyed gruesome yarns and, more surprisingly, Latin grammar, I was delighted to discover that the two could go together. Briefly, thus: a boy, asked for a sentence using memento + genitive, comes up, apparently out of the blue, with memento putei inter quatuor taxos – ‘I remember the well among the four yews’ – at which his Latin master has a funny turn.
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Nuffin’ Like a Puffin

Nuffin’ Like a Puffin

I was a gluttonous reader, possessive and insatiable. On my desk before me sits a little pile of three-and-sixpenny story books, so freighted with emotion that I can hardly bear to open them. The first one I pick up is Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green. The brown Sellotape splinters as I turn the pages for the first time in nearly forty years. Tucked inside is an order coupon that I forgot to post, with a cross in the box next to Aesop’s Fables and, sure enough, on the title page is a sticker showing a lion and a unicorn, and standing between them is a puffin with his beak buried in a book. ‘From the library of . . .’ underneath which I have written ‘K. S. H. Dunn – MINE’.
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A Man’s Man

At first I enjoyed being the only person ever to have read The Dark of Summer. It was like coming across a deserted beach that can only be reached by boat. But then, glancing down Linklater’s exhausting bibliography (twenty-three novels, ten plays, three children’s books, six collections of short stories, three biographies and more), the thought began to niggle at me: what had happened to all those books? I instigated a search. ‘Eric Linklater?’ said one second-hand bookshop owner as he went downstairs to rummage about in his basement. ‘I should be ashamed if I didn’t have anything by him. He’s rather out of fashion these days, isn’t he?’ Another said, ‘Eric Linklater? Must have, somewhere . . . sort of middlebrow?’
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. . . to National Treasure

. . . to National Treasure

When Ancestral Voices was first to be published in 1975, Chatto & Windus knew that it was ‘Heywood Hill’s sort of book’. I asked for the earliest possible proof copy and signed up a large number of customers for the finished book. In my innocence I told Helen Lady Dashwood (‘Hellbags’) that the diaries covered the period when Jim lived at West Wycombe, and she ordered an early copy. A few days after it was published, she appeared in the shop carrying her copy as if with tongs, and asked for it to be credited to her account: she ‘could not have this book in her house’.
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From National Trust . . .

From National Trust . . .

Not everyone has dinner with Winston Churchill and watches him re-enact the Battle of Jutland with wine glasses and decanters, puffing cigar smoke to represent the guns; or gets into a spitting match at a bus stop; or snorts cocaine with Lord Berners (the Uncle Merlin of Love in a Cold Climate); or is told by Diana Mosley how Hitler loved England and wept when Singapore fell to the Japanese; or hears from John Betjeman of his first teenage affair, in a punt with the son of a vicar; or can describe as Jim could a vast range of riveting and also somehow illuminating encounters with friends as varied as the Mitfords, Cyril Connolly, Mick Jagger, Cecil Beaton, Anthony Powell, Bruce Chatwin and Ivy Compton-Burnett – as well as the livelier end of the aristocracy and the other luminaries, sympathetic or strange, brought to light by the National Trust.
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Trouble at Tampling

J. L. Carr was a primary school head in Kettering, Northamptonshire, who took early retirement from teaching so he could become a full-time writer, and who supported himself, his wife and his son in the meantime by setting up and running from his home a publishing house, the Quince Tree Press, which produced a series of ‘little books’, mainly selections of the great English poets, and county maps that Carr drew and illustrated himself. Probably the most famous of the ‘little books’ – designed to fit into an envelope and light enough for an ordinary postage stamp – is Carr’s Dictionary of Extraordinary Cricketers. Carr wrote eight novels, one of which is, I am as certain as it is ever possible to be, a masterpiece. One cannot credit him with the amplitude which T. S. Eliot identified as one of the characteristics of greatness in a writer, because even that masterpiece – A Month in the Country – is very short, almost a novella, but it contains more of the fullness of life than most very long novels.
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Cooking with a Poet

There came to the house a charming letter, a photograph of ‘my paradise of a small garden’ and a parcel of some of the most enchanting volumes I had ever seen. Printed in India (of which more below), they were bound in sari cloth, each in a different rich colour and pattern, and each embossed in gold. They smelled slightly musty, as if they had been stored in someone’s cellar. A number of typographical errors had been elegantly corrected with the author’s fountain pen, and each volume autographed in the same lovely hand. Finally, these little books turned out to contain not just recipes – Onion Soup without the Fuss, Dandelion Wine, Mincemeat Tel Aviv – but a selection of poems and the hugely entertaining story of the author’s life.
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Race of Ghosts

Preoccupied with the ‘Phoney War’, from declaration to the fall of France, or what Waugh described as the ‘Great Bore War’, Put Out More Flags was his sixth novel, and although it was a great success on first publication in 1942, it seems to be one of his few novels that people don’t know today. Waugh readers tend to fall into two camps, usually on either side of Brideshead Revisited (1945), with some reading only the ‘mature’ books, others sticking fiercely to the early comedies. Put Out More Flags is perhaps under-loved because it falls, both chronologically and stylistically, between these two recognizable periods in Waugh’s fiction.
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Backwards up the Orinoco

I have to admit it. I am a sucker for novels in which a key element is the passage of time – Buddenbrooks, The Old Wives’ Tale, The Forsyte Saga, I name just three old standbys. And then, first published in the 1950s but not read by me until several years later, came a sensational eye-opener of an entirely different sort, Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. This extraordinary novel is not concerned with a mere few generations. It retraces the history of mankind back to its start.
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A Fine Burgundy

A Fine Burgundy

Vansittart's great achievement is to take us into the completely different way of thinking of the men and women of those times; their superstitions and certainties, their rituals and fetishes and taboos. As he pointed out in an essay heralding his aims in the novel, even such primary things as colour had different meanings for them which were ‘bewilderingly complex; the medievals gave each colour heraldic, moral, magical, religious, strategic meanings, often contradictory’. With quick, deft imagery he conjures up not how things might seem to us from the distance of our own time, but how they would have been seen then. The effect is unusual and arresting; he is so swift-footed, his prose so teeming with curious detail, that we want constantly to stop and reflect on what we are reading.
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