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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 . . . ’
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Chips with Everything

I first encountered the work of Stephen Potter in a TV sketch show that conflated the great comedy quartet of his ‘Upmanship’ books: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, Lifemanship, One-Upmanship and Supermanship, published by Rupert Hart-Davis between the late Forties and late Fifties. The TV series began in 1974, when I was 12, by which time Potter had been dead for five years. Having recently discovered A. G. Macdonell’s, England, Their England, I was just learning that sustained drollery is better than a series of gags, and these programmes seemed another lesson to that effect.
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Orders from Swaledale

Rupert Hart-Davis retired to Swaledale from the London publishing world two years before I joined it in 1965, so it was on the shelves of second-hand bookshops that his name first really registered with me. I often found myself spotting books which he had published before I could read his name on them, because in both design and production they had a distinct air of quality. And then, when I pulled them off the shelf, I often ended up buying them because they were to do with the Victorian era, a period that has always mesmerized me.
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Silly Suffolk

Silly Suffolk

The year 2004 was what I shall call my ‘Suffolk Year’, one in which I immersed myself in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes through a workshop and performance at Covent Garden and a concert performance elsewhere. Britten is a magician. He can conjure up the sea, rivers and salt marshes of Suffolk, the battering North Sea storms and the endless blue skies that seduce you into believing the calm will endure; and the isolation too, which is one theme of the opera.
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Between Two Worlds

Between Two Worlds

I came late to magic. The stories of my childhood were mainly Greek myths (there was a Cyclops at the bottom of our garden) or the plots – with copious quotations – of Jane Austen’s novels, my mother, the storyteller, having a deep love for and knowledge of both. Later, with pretensions to intellectual sophistication, I had no time for kids’ stuff. So it was at a relatively advanced age that I discovered Lewis Carroll, George Macdonald, James Stephens, Masefield of The Midnight Folk, Tolkien, T. H. White. They burst upon my reading, fresh and new. Of the more modern books, the one that has gripped me most is Elidor by Alan Garner.
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A Most Unusual Memsahib

The verb ‘to travel’ could be parsed like this: I’m a traveller, you’re a tourist, he’s a tripper. Most of us, including me, are tourists, condemned to the soul-destroying procedures of modern journeys. Travellers don’t do the sheep-in-a-line bit, they make their own way. They hitch lifts from passing pilots or use the local bus or buy a camel. They don’t land briefly on the surface of other people’s lives but get right inside.
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Imaginative Leaps

Imaginative Leaps

The Berlin Wall, a brutal, iconic structure made of concrete and barbed-wire, rose to split a city overnight in August 1961. Then just as quickly, and again overnight, it was breached in November 1989 when glasnost spread through eastern Europe. As an impressionable student in the Eighties, hungry for icons, not brutality, I found that the Wall cast a compelling spell. And if my grant couldn’t get me to Berlin at the time, then cultural touchstones worked instead. There was the music of David Bowie (whose albums Low and Heroes were made at the famous Hansa studios, by the Wall). There were certain fashions to follow (baggy coats and macs, surely the attire of spies). And, of course, there were books to devour, with accounts of the Wall covered by most genres. So, with twenty years approaching since that momentous breach, what would I read again to mark the event?
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Optimistic Green Flags

Optimistic Green Flags

This morning, in the woods on Tooting Common, the sight of a young man plucking nettles and dropping them into a forage bag instantly reconnected me to my earlier life where ‘found food’ was a regular treat: wild parsnips, raspberries, blaeberries, angelica stems or water mint. Back in the 1970s, in my anti-consumerist hippy days, my home was sometimes an old Bedford van. Crammed with partner, three children, scruffy dog, cooking equipment, mattresses and quilts, this arthritic dragon – belching out smoke and small metal parts – transported us up and down the country lanes of Britain and Ireland. We enjoyed impromptu alfresco meals often gathered, picked or dug up from woods and field corners at dusk. ‘Dusking’ Richard Mabey calls it.
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Mr Smith Goes to Arcadia

In 1938, with the gloriously musical literary voices of Victoria’s reign just fading from living memory, Oxford University Press published English Prose of the Victorian Era. The table of contents of this 1,700-page behemoth is a literary Who’s Who of the nineteenth century: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman, Mill, Ruskin, Thackeray, Arnold, T. H. Huxley, William Morris, J. A. Froude, Walter Pater, Robert Louis Stevenson. Though they are now seldom accorded the respect they deserve, they are familiar – though often, sadly, only in name. There is a single exception. One gentle soul has been forsaken. His name is Alexander Smith, and in 1863 he gave us a quiet masterpiece: Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country.
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Down and Out in Havana

I knew what I wanted, and I went to Havana to find it. It was the university summer holidays. England was one long yawn, with its slow drizzle and its Third Way, the flat vowels of its politicians and their deadly practical aspirations of stability and prosperity. I’d spent two years sitting in the library reading about faraway, long-ago revolutions, grinding my teeth at the dullness of my life. I sat there absorbing other people’s pontifications so I could go off and pontificate myself, so I could order and organize a world I hadn’t yet really discovered. I wanted to find a place where people were actually living, where they were sweating and dancing and dying and having sex; a place, in fact, like that in Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy.
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A Chequered Career

I got to know Michael Wharton in the early 1980s, when I was working as an editor at Chatto & Windus. We had commissioned him to write what turned out to be The Missing Will, the first volume of his autobiography, and every now and then I would meet him for a drink in the King and Keys, a narrow, smoke-filled pub next to the old Telegraph building in Fleet Street. It was usually half-empty when I went there during lunch breaks that continued well into the afternoon, but in the evenings, Michael told me, it was crammed to overflowing with his colleagues from the Daily Telegraph, red-faced and sweating and jostling for a place at the bar.
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Life with Aunt Sylvie

Life with Aunt Sylvie

Once in a blue moon an encounter with a new book can be like falling in love – you just know, instinctively, that you’ve found a voice that’s entirely sympathetic, and that you want to spend the rest of your life with it – or at close quarters, at least. Housekeeping had that effect on me: I remember the distant rumbles of acclaim when it first came out in 1980 and was nominated for the Pulitzer among its raft of other awards, but I didn’t catch up with it myself until last year, and I read it with a sense of wonder.

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