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Dog Days

Dog Days

Alethea Hayter’s clever, innovative book of 1965 turned a searchlight on a time, a place, a circle of people; it has surely inspired the subsequent fashion for group biographies, most brilliantly exemplified by Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men. Hayter’s book is short, succinct, intensely focused and cunningly structured. She moves forward day by day, homing in on each member of the cast – what they looked like, how they sounded: Elizabeth Barrett with her two thick curtains of dark ringlets and ‘the taut face of an Egyptian cat goddess’; Carlyle’s conversation – ‘a flood, a war-chant, a cavalry charge of splendid sentences’. All these people were leading social and literary figures of the time, a coterie who wined and dined almost daily – ‘breakfasts’ of six or eight, three hours of competitive wit and gossip.

Redeemed by Muriel

There are books I admire but don’t read again and books I reread compulsively. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler falls into the latter category. It was only a recent seventh rereading that finally revealed why. It had taken me that long to hold the sum of this extraordinary novel in my head – to realize that this was a great and subtle piece of writing where every character, every phrase was a carefully chosen part of a magnificent and subtle whole. It is also, even after multiple readings, extremely funny.
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Something Marvellous to Tell

Something Marvellous to Tell

The generation that survived two world wars seemed to like nothing better than to go on reading about them. Well into the 1950s bookshops in the UK awarded pride of place to covers featuring grown-ups in cap and uniform superimposed on scenes of exploding ordnance and diving aircraft. In non-fiction as in fiction ‘War’ dominated the High Street; part-works, comics, board games and films catered to the same taste. Then around 1958, possibly in reaction to the Suez débâcle, ‘War’ began beating a retreat. ‘History’, ‘Travel’ and ‘Biography’ were encroaching. Within a decade the uniforms and the bombs had been banished to subterranean stacks now entitled ‘Military’.
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Episode 15: Reading Resolutions

Episode 15: Reading Resolutions

As we turn the page to a new decade, we’ve made some New Year resolutions. John Mitchinson and Andy Miller of Backlisted Podcast join the Slightly Foxed Editors to bring new life to old books, leading us off the beaten track with wide-ranging reading recommendations. From Frank O’Connor’s letters, Selina Hastings’s lives and Barbara Tuchman’s histories to the poetry of John Berryman, Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, they journey through genres to revive literary curiosity. And in this month’s reading from the magazine’s archives, Richard Platt makes a convincing case for The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, falling under its curse of sleepless nights.  
39 minutes

On the Beach 

I first became aware of Leo Walmsley at the age of 11, when my brother introduced me to his novel Foreigners (1935), which I read with tremendous enjoyment. Surprisingly one of the boys in my brother’s class revealed that he actually knew Walmsley. He was a boarder and his home was in the Cornish town of Fowey. Walmsley, he said, lived a bohemian writer’s existence in a hut on a beach near the town. A cheap second-hand Penguin edition of Foreigners was duly taken home by my brother’s friend and came back after the school holidays signed by the author.
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Not so Merry England

Ivanhoe is the one novel by Sir Walter Scott that needs to be discovered twice – if, that is, you first encountered it at school, as I did. To me then the plot seemed overcomplicated, and the whole thing only vaguely interesting; but reading it afresh as an adult, it strikes me as that rare thing, a great book, albeit a flawed one. Better novels of Scott’s such as Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian are no longer household names. Yet Ivanhoe lives on in the national consciousness for, clumsy as it sometimes is, it strikes a powerful chord, being a morality tale about the English vice of hypocrisy.
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If at First

If at First

A few years ago I was still managing to keep my mother – elderly and frail – living in her own home, which was what she wanted. But she had a collection of medical problems any one of which could flare up into a crisis without notice. Every now and again, I would get a call from one of her carers telling me that her GP had called an ambulance. I would then rush to the hospital to ensure she was properly attended to and to give her comfort. Deep down I was worried that she would never be able to return home again but instead would be cooped up in hospital or a nursing home for the rest of her life. In this period of acute anxiety I had two sources of comfort. One, naturally, was my family. The other – and I’m afraid this will seem a dreadful moment of bathos – was The Clicking of Cuthbert, a book of short stories by P. G. Wodehouse.
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Writers at Sea

A friend recently urged me to read Frank Kermode’s memoir Not Entitled – not for the account of a supremely successful academic career in the second half of the twentieth century, nor for insights into the making of a renowned literary critic, but for the account of his naval service. Kermode, I was told, had joined up in 1940. Isolated among madmen engaged on futile, conspicuously wasteful projects in Scotland and Iceland, his war experiences were a small, entertaining testimony to the ludicrousness of war.
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Thoreau’s Axe

Thoreau’s Axe

In 1973, my wife and I left a flat in St John’s Wood for a decrepit 5-acre smallholding in West Wales. There we continued, in cheerful penury, for the next twelve years. ‘Back in the days’, as we survivors of the Sixties like to say, self-sufficiency was the watchword, and the guru of that era’s back-to-the-landers was John Seymour (See SF No. 26, p.62). His contention, that a free and modestly prosperous peasantry is the best basis for a strong and stable society, was powerfully made by his writings and example, and remains, I believe, valid today. But equally appealing to many latter-day voluntary peasants was an earlier and very different prophet of self-sufficiency: Henry David Thoreau.
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High Flyer

High Flyer

Robert Loraine was a magnificent man in a flying machine. I first encountered his story in an Anglesey meadow where he had two of his many crashes. Soon afterwards I chanced on a biography of him in a second-hand bookshop. Robert Loraine, Soldier, Actor, Airman was as wrecked as one of his flimsy aircraft. A restorer made it shelfworthy so that from time to time I can marvel at Loraine’s reckless courage. As a distinguished actor he had played d’Artagnan on the London stage and he seemed to stay in character when he swapped sword for joystick. ‘He had the soul of a poet,’ Jules Védrines, his French mechanic, observed, ‘and a poet does not make a reliable pilot.’
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On the North West Frontier

Wallace Breem is one of those authors who, if he is remembered at all, is probably known only for his first novel, Eagle in the Snow, which received high praise and achieved excellent sales on its first publication in 1970. Sadly, Breem’s next two novels were largely ignored by the critics and the public. Their comparative failure and the pressure of his job dissuaded him from writing a fourth, although he did contemplate one on the disaster that befell Quintilius Varus and his legions in the Teutoburgerwald forest in AD 7; but by the time of his premature death in 1990 he had only produced some notes for a preliminary draft.
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The Well-Connected Letter-Writer

Long ago, as a student, I was told to read the letters of Madame de Sévigné to get a better understanding of seventeenth-century French history. Now that exams are far behind me, I wonder how many other students also went to a library, discovered fourteen volumes of correspondence written in French, and decided to postpone this encounter. But many years later I read a few of the letters in translation and, being an enthusiastic letter-writer myself, felt I had discovered a kindred spirit. Mme de Sévigné’s letters struck me as refreshingly frank and entertaining, and I loved her pleasure in one-sided conversations and her constant longing for replies. Like all the best correspondents she knows how to make you her confidante. You only have to read about ‘Mme Paul, who has gone quite off her head and has fallen in love with a great oaf of 25 or 26 whom she has taken on to do the garden,’ to want to read on.
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Down in the Mayfair Badlands

Down in the Mayfair Badlands

In strict taxonomic terms, Roger Longrigg’s long career – he published novels for over half his seven decades on the planet – looks like a throw-back, a reversion to the high-output conditions of the inter-war era when, as Alec Waugh once put it, ‘a book a year was the rule’. Certainly a professional bibliographer called in to reckon up his prodigious output would hardly know where to start. To begin with there are the dozen novels written in the ’50s and ’60s under his own name – gamey and somewhat louche affairs, including the horse-racing caper Daughters of Mulberry (1961). Then there are the psychological thrillers from the 1980s, most notably Mother Love (1983), under the alias ‘Domini Taylor’.
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An Extraordinary Ordinary Man

An Extraordinary Ordinary Man

Hans Zinsser is stalking a murderer. His quarry has terrified hapless victims for centuries, coming upon them suddenly, by stealth, with overwhelming power and agility, sending whole cities into panic, pushing empires to the edge of extinction, then vanishing, only to reappear thousands of miles away. Dr Zinsser’s story is not an ephemeral romance of vampire kitsch but a true tale of blood lust, life and death. Dr Zinsser is a bacteriologist. The murderer he hunts is typhus, an adversary he respects as Holmes respected Moriarty. So deep runs his feeling that after decades of struggle, he comes to love it ‘as Amy Lowell loved Keats’, and even to write its biography. His life is so intertwined with that of his enemy that his ‘biography of a bacillus’, Rats, Lice and History, may be read as a long and entertaining digression from his incomparable memoir, As I Remember Him: A Biography of RS, which he disguised as a third-person narrative, the RS of the title being his own Romantic Self.
SF magazine subscribers only

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