In most childhood games, the first thing you need to do is eliminate the parents. You can’t be an outlaw or have adventures if you have parents to spoil the excitement. My sisters and I were often on the run…
In most childhood games, the first thing you need to do is eliminate the parents. You can’t be an outlaw or have adventures if you have parents to spoil the excitement. My sisters and I were often on the run…
One day in 1981 a young woman found herself travelling from her Scottish home to London to meet a publisher. So far so predictable perhaps. She had read Russian at university and had recently translated the memoirs of the painter Leonid Pasternak, father of the more famous Boris. There was nothing predictable about this meeting, however, and the man waiting for her at the door of his Mayfair flat was no ordinary publisher. This is how she describes him.
While enjoying an unaccustomed and leisurely breakfast in bed, Rose was struck by a new thought. She laid down her toast, flicked away a crumb, and gazed gloomily at her surroundings: whatnots, little gilt console tables and hand-me-down tapestry chairs, and that was only the bedroom. What had once seemed so comfortable, offering continuity and a well-polished notion of permanence, was now nothing more than a baleful echo.
I had thought of keeping a commonplace book for many years. In my library at home I had gradually collected a few classic examples, such as Maurice Baring’s Have You Anything to Declare?, John Murray’s A Gentleman Publisher’s Commonplace Book…
‘You must be cruel to be kind,’ gardeners tell you, about pruning roses. ‘The more you cut them down, the more they love it.’ This might be true of roses but is it true of book collections? I should imagine they absolutely hate it. Or perhaps the ones that survive are so relieved that they turn a blind eye to the atrocities going on further down the shelf . . .
It was only after I retired that I looked along my bookshelves and realized there were many books I was never going to open again – so why not try to sell them? I signed up to sell online and was delighted when Heidegger’s Being and Time, unopened for decades and then only very briefly, sold the next day. This was evidently a Good Idea. I had been attending book fairs for years, so the next step was obvious: take a stall at a fair . . .
It seems a rather odd thing to admit these days, but I spent much of my youth reading war comics and watching war films. That’s how it was if you lived in a house filled with boys in the 1960s. As a result I can still recite, without recourse to Wikipedia, the names of the three men who won a bar to the Victoria Cross (Chavasse, Martin- Leake and Upham, if you are interested), and I can easily recall the boiling hot afternoons during the summer holidays that I spent at Tobruk or on the Normandy beaches, flying low over the Möhne dam or high in the skies above Kent – all while sitting in a 1/9d seat at the Regal Cinema, Wallingford . . .
September 3 dawned dark and overcast, with a slight breeze ruffling the waters of the estuary. Hornchurch aerodrome, twelve miles east of London, wore its usual morning pallor of yellow fog, lending an added air of grimness to the dimly silhouetted Spitfires around the boundary. From time to time a balloon would poke its head grotesquely through the mist as though looking for possible victims before falling back like some tired monster …
The sleeper lounge is old-fashioned British Rail, all tartan carpet, smeared tables and microwave cuisine. Tonight it contains a gathering of solitaries, all of us making separate journeys to London. The man beside me is still working, though it’s nearly ten o’clock. By chance we order the same whisky. We raise our plastic glasses, embarrassed in a very British way. I want to encourage him. He is at war with a pile of papers. But he is wishing me good luck as well. He has been glancing at the author’s face on the back cover of my novel. She does rather stare . . .
I am sometimes asked which writers have changed my life. Next time I shall not answer ‘Proust’ but ‘Rachel Khoo’. For five years, since the death of my husband, I had all but given up cooking and eating, all but forgotten what I had valued before my personal doomsday. Rachel Khoo has re-engaged my taste-buds and my enthusiasm. I may even convert my fantasy dinner parties into real ones. I am already making lists . . .
How well is Pamela Frankau remembered? She was born on 3 January 1908, so last year was her centenary. But . . . no garlands? No memorials? No flourish in the literary pages? Well, Pamela would be the first to look on this with wry amusement, and without complaint . . .
They seemed reasonable enough requests. Don’t lie on the bed naked in case passing servants catch an eyeful. Also, in mixed company, could he try to swear only in French? Modest pleas made by Theodore Watts-Dunton to the poet and ex-libertine Algernon Charles Swinburne when they first set up home together. It was 1879 and Swinburne’s relish for brandy and flagellation had reached a critical point. In the nick of time, Watts-Dunton, the gallant walrus-moustached solicitor-turned-author, had plucked his friend from the depths and carried him off for a spot of detox in Putney.
Early one morning, late in July, the villagers of ‘crack-brained Brensham’ woke to a remarkable spectacle. There amid the customary colours of furze and wheat was a seven-acre field that ‘had suddenly become tinctured with the colour of Mediterranean skies’. Nothing like it had ever happened before, so that the villagers caught their breath at the sight of this miracle: a great, vivid patch of cerulean ‘so clear and pure that it made one think of eyes or skies’ . . .
I first came across Spark when working in a little second-hand bookshop off the Charing Cross Road. A battered tome of her selected works was on sale in the outside pile, desolately stationed there to be picked over by tourists and dampened by rain. Not having much to do (the shop closed a month later, not necessarily because I’d worked there) I started reading one afternoon, and was hooked. For while Muriel Spark makes you laugh out loud, she also makes you think – she must, I feel, have been a formidable dinner-party companion, quietly sitting there with her razor-sharp tongue . . .
The Child that Books Built is the title of a memoir by Francis Spufford which explores the impact of books read in childhood by interspersing an account of Spufford’s own reading with excursions into history, philosophy and psychology. It beautifully articulates the formative nature of childhood literary exploration. ‘The words we take into ourselves help to shape us,’ Spufford writes. ‘They help form the questions we think are worth asking; they shift around the boundaries of the sayable inside us . . . They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination.’
My own prime favourite is Anthony Powell’s sequence of novels A Dance to the Music of Time: panoramic, sharply observed, farcical, ironic, yet shot through with what Kingsley Amis called an endlessly inquisitive melancholy. We shadow the narrator Nick Jenkins from the callow half-understanding of youth, in the Twenties, through the drastic remaking of lives and relationships by war, to late middle age in the heady Sixties and Seventies – a whole new age of absurdity against which the novel’s various endgames are played out . . .
Some years ago a couple of friends were running a speed-dating event at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature and, being short of male participants and knowing I was performing at the festival that weekend, they asked if I could help…
It’s a wonderful thing when a book so fires the imagination that it becomes more real than the world around you, when the mind is totally absorbed, the page dissolves, and you begin to exist differently. It was mainly a thing of long childhood summers, when I was a musketeer, then a Viking, a wizard, a centaur – once even a quickfooted warrior mouse. Sadly it stopped in adolescence, when these things weren’t done . . .
In 1994, Hilary Mantel joined the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, where I was working as Secretary. She was in her midforties, and her sinister and hilarious fourth novel, Fludd, had been a big hit with our President,…
I love the fact that Sagan blew her £75 advance for Bonjour Tristesse on whisky and a chic black sweater. But she got the last laugh, and plenty more jumpers, because the novel was eventually translated into twenty languages, sold 2 million copies and was made into a film starring David Niven and Deborah Kerr . . .
A lot of the stories I loved most as a child involved doors. Aged about 4, I suppose, I passed through the small, latched door in the hillside, into Mrs Tiggywinkle’s flagged kitchen, filled with the ‘nice, hot, singey smell’ of ironing, busy and reassuring. A few years later came the doors into Narnia, the Secret Garden and Wonderland, Bilbo Baggins’s ‘perfectly round’ green door with its shiny yellow brass knob ‘in the exact middle’, the door into the Yellow Dwarf ’s home in the orange tree, and the dark door into Bluebeard’s bloody chamber . . .
But reading to my own children, the door I’ve been happiest to pass through again is the door into Tom’s Midnight Garden – a door one can only imagine because, unlike most of the others, it is never described.
The literary editor, novelist, memoirist and lady of letters Diana Athill turns 100 today, and is still writing. To celebrate her birthday, we are delighted to share the article she wrote for Slightly Foxed in Issue 28, Winter 2010.
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There is no book more haunting than W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. I would not advise anyone unfamiliar with his earlier books to make it their introduction to his work, because his decision to do away, in this one, with paragraphs, and the way in which the narrative unfolds, are disconcerting enough when first encountered to be off-putting. It is necessary to make an act of trust – to put yourself in his hands; and this may be a problem for anyone who has not yet learned to trust him by reading his wonderful The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo. I doubt whether I would have persisted beyond the first thirty-odd pages of Austerlitz if I hadn’t already learned that wherever Sebald led, I must follow him . . .
In 1922, Richard Kennedy’s formidable grandmother pulled a well-connected string and got him a scholarship to Marlborough. To say that Kennedy’s education up to this point had been patchy is an understatement. As he describes it in his childhood memoir…
By the end of the 1980s, in my mid-twenties, I’d been through university, a stint of unemployment, a couple of tread-water jobs, and come to a halt, a despondent Is this it? Not knowing what I wanted or expected, I sent off a flare of speculative letters, and by a strange percolation of nerve and chance I got an interview, and then a job, at Faber . . .
This is a story about the last gnomes in Britain. They are honest-to-goodness gnomes, none of your baby, fairy-book tinsel stuff, and they live by hunting and fishing, like the animals and birds, which is only proper and right . . .
If you have read The Little Grey Men you will know all about Oak Tree House and the Stream People, and how three gnomes – Dodder (a lame gnome), Baldmoney and Sneezewort – went up the Folly Brook to look for their lost brother Cloudberry, and how they discovered him, after many adventures, fit and well and full of high spirits . . .
The middle volume of Adrian Bell’s inter-war farming trilogy, Silver Ley (1931), is, in its quiet, unassuming way, the most poignant memoir I think I have ever read. Picking up where his first book Corduroy left off, it opens in 1921 as Bell wakes up for the very first time on his own Suffolk farm, full of hope, with two newly bought heavy horses, Darkie and Dewdrop, stamping in the yard . . .
During the afternoon of 27 May we were warned that a conference of all officers would be held at 6.30 that evening at which the colonel, who had just received instructions from the general, would unfold an important plan . . .
There is nothing ‘common-place’ about Pride and Prejudice. It has a tightly woven, seductively intricate plot, which unfolds so delicately that the reader falls blindly into the traps of imperception set by the author, alongside that most perfect of imperfect heroines, Elizabeth Bennet. It has dialogue which sparkles and sings in the most extraordinary way, so that characters come alive in only a few words. It has a hero and heroine who fence and fight and fall in love . . .
The writer Adrian Bell first arrived in Suffolk in 1920 – a delicate young would-be poet, fresh from public school at Uppingham and the polite drawing-rooms of Chelsea, under pressure from his father, who was news editor of the Observer, to get a proper job. He was, he says, ‘flying from the threat of office life’ when he first presented himself for work on the farm of an old-established farming family in the countryside near Bury St Edmunds.
‘Lettice Spragg has promised to invite you to tennis one Sunday. I confided my worries to her and read aloud your father’s latest letter.’ ‘Tennis!’ I was astounded . . .
I recall being mildly disappointed that the factory in Charlie and the Chocolate was not fashioned solely from chocolate. Now that literalism strikes me as peculiarly wonderful. And, in retrospect, it seems completely bound up in my enjoyment as a young boy of what was far and away my favourite Dahl title: Fantastic Mr Fox – a book that continues to colonize my consciousness, if in rather bastardized form.
Her name was Muriel Haidée Perry and she was born on 5 March 1890, or so I believed when I went to Somerset House to look up the registration of her birth. It wasn’t there. What I was really looking for – this was after she was dead and I had started to write about her – were the names of her parents. This was something that I had never been able to get her to tell me.
In a poem written near the end of his life, W. S. Graham imagined himself as a ‘wordy ghost’, ‘floating across the frozen tundra / of the lexicon and the dictionary’. Like Graham – like many people – I am also a ‘wordy ghost’, who loves haunting the pages of lexicons, dictionaries and glossaries. Unlike Graham I find the pages of such books to be not ‘frozen tundra’, sterile and barren – but fabulous forests, alive with delving word-roots and spreading canopies of connotation.
I shall always be grateful to A Cab at the Door. I read most of it one Sunday evening in a Victoria line tube train which was stuck for two hours outside King’s Cross station. The train lights dimmed and instead of the Blitz spirit a sullen, twitchy silence set in. I was spectacularly lucky in my companion. The sheer vigour of V. S. Pritchett’s writing and his benign, shrewd storyteller’s voice kept me suspended in his Edwardian boyhood until ‘the juice’, as the panic-stricken driver called it, came back on and we trundled away at last.
How long had I been standing here under the old cherry tree? Minutes or years? While the storm with its batteries of thunder deployed across the sky, letting fall but a few drops – for all its growling – which the boughs above me caught and shook till they sparkled . . .
‘All happy families resemble one another,’ said Tolstoy, rather sweepingly, ‘but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ The Anna Karenina principle has so long been taken for a truism one hesitates to disagree, but on reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles it occurred to me that there’s no such thing as a happy family – how could there be? – and that if there were, it would be a most unsatisfactory subject for a novel.
Not surprisingly, the highest selling novel was Robert Harris’s Conclave, but the splendid dark horse has been Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939-1979, published by Slightly Foxed . . .
‘Lashings of jolly japes, inedible food, schoolgirl crushes . . . but no education! A captivating book reveals what really used to happen at girls’ boarding schools. Author Ysenda Maxtone Graham tells us about her bestselling book: Terms & Conditions: Life…
I went to a girls’ boarding-school in 1972. It was only for an afternoon. I’d been staying with a friend for half-term and we stopped on our way into London to drop her older sister back at school. I can’t remember which it was. Wycombe Abbey? Cobham Hall? Or Benenden, then of matchless fame for the education of Princess Anne? Though I’d never actually been inside a boarding-school, I knew all about them from books like Third Form at Malory Towers by the evidence-based historian, as I supposed she was, Enid Blyton.
It is generally thought that Stella Gibbons was mocking Mary Webb’s Precious Bane when she wrote Cold Comfort Farm, but she was probably having a pop at all those purveyors of country hardship, sex, doom and slop, Hardy and Lawrence included. One can easily tire of the lush, dripping, thrusting, tragic, moist, fecund countryside, and long for a brisk young woman from the tough pavements of town like Flora Poste to come along and tidy things up a bit . . .
In 1989 I was commissioned to write and present a programme about the Phoney War for BBC Radio 4. My research took me to the Imperial War Museum’s sound archives and the testimony of a Dunkirk veteran called Anthony Rhodes, who was commissioned into the Royal Engineers shortly before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939. At that stage I’d no idea Rhodes had written a book about his experiences, but what he had to say on tape was exemplary . . .
After the events of the past few months, we must admit that, though extremely cheerful and optimistic, we’re also feeling a bit ruminative here in the office. Somehow the timeless and civilizing things we hope Slightly Foxed stands for seem more important than ever at a moment of change like this. We hope, anyway, that with the arrival of this autumn issue you can relax, draw the curtains – actual or metaphorical – and, as one of our American readers recently described it, ‘breathe a sigh of relief and slip into a world of thoughtfulness and good humor’.
The Young Visiters was published in 1919 but written in 1890, when its author was 9. It appeared with a Preface by J. M. Barrie and with the manuscript’s many spelling mistakes faithfully reproduced. Within two years it had sold 230,000 copies, given rise to a stage play, and caused a rumpus in literary London. It has never been out of print since. This is an exceptional record for a slight work. Why was The Young Visiters so popular and why does it endure?
Do you treasure ancient paperbacks, spines gone, pages browning, brittle and crumbling, held together (or not quite) with perished elastic bands, simply because you also treasure the memories they evoke as much by their physical appearance as by their contents?
Do you treasure ancient paperbacks, spines gone, pages browning, brittle and crumbling, held together (or not quite) with perished elastic bands, simply because you also treasure the memories they evoke as much by their physical appearance as by their contents? . . .
When he came home of an evening, we went through an unchanging ritual. Hanging on the gate, I could tell the shape of him as he cruised the last half-mile along the Brighton Road on the Ariel. Just our side of Chandler’s Corner he would switch off the petrol for the sake of economy and freewheel silently the rest of the way, having judged his impetus so exactly that the merest touch of the brakes would halt him after the front wheel bumped over the kerb. The bike would be wheeled into the outhouse, suddenly full of the stirring odour of hot oil and the clicking of cooling metal. And then, in the kitchen, even had I been blindfolded, I could have recognised him; for he brought into the house an entire anthology of smells I associated with nobody else . . .
A few months before his thirteenth birthday, the young and miserable Gavin Maxwell crept out of St Wulfric’s prep school to send a ‘thoroughly hysterical’ letter to his mother. At the end of it he wrote, ‘For God’s sake take me away from this awful place.’ She answered his plea, and he was whisked away in the middle of the Spring term, ‘a quaking jelly of misery and self-pity’. He went straight home, to the House of Elrig – the house he grew up in on the edge of the vast Monreith estate in Galloway, surrounded by woods and peat bogs and heather. I was also a quaking jelly at school. I would long for the holidays, when we would pack up and drive to Scotland, to be dragged through ever thicker rain in search of ever rarer birds. My friends saw the sun in August. I saw the Shetland wren. So I find Maxwell’s books deeply comforting: none more so than The House of Elrig (1965), which describes in lucid detail the impossible social awkwardness of school, and the irresistible freedom of the natural world . . .
All of Aickman’s tales (he wrote 48 in all) include some kind of supernatural element. ‘Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal’ is a vampire story, ‘Ringing the Changes’ is a zombie story, others feature ghostly visitants of various kinds. But that in itself is not what is strange about them. The characters are strange. The events are strange. The scenarios are strange. It’s hard to convey the special, unsettling atmosphere of Aickman’s work to anyone who isn’t acquainted with it; but let me try . . .
It’s always strange to think how easily you might not have met that someone: a bus that arrived on time, or a last drink at the bar, and it might all have been quite different. Our meetings with books can be equally subject to fluke. I was in the queue at Barter Books in Alnwick, a clutch of holiday reading under my arm, when for no reason at all I picked up a green Virago paperback: The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner
It’s hard to believe autumn is here already. But the days are shortening, the air is growing brisker, and gradually the city is coming to life again as people trickle back after the long summer break. London is back in business, and it’s all go here in the Slightly Foxed office, with the latest of the Slightly Foxed Editions and Slightly Foxed Cubs arriving from the printers, and some new projects afoot.
Gentlemen: Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase ‘antiquarian booksellers’ scares me somewhat, as I equate ‘antique’ with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books . . .
Almost every morning of their lives the weather-wise people of Elmbury lift up their eyes to glance at Brensham Hill which rises solitary out of the vale, four miles away as the crow flies . . .
Among the small horde of papers Diana Petre left me as her literary executor when she died in 2001 was a folder labelled: ‘Excuses. Lies. Evasions. Deceits.’ I thought at first that it might contain further notes about her mother, whose unhappy story is so brilliantly told in The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley and whose attempts to hold on to her many secrets involved all these ploys. In fact, it merely contained material Diana had collected for an anthology she once thought of compiling about the ways in which people get out of awkward or unwanted social engagements . . .
By now most of us have probably begun the often rather agonized run-up to Christmas – the worry about what to buy for whom and where to find it. For Slightly Foxed readers, we suspect books are likely to feature somewhere in that list. Quite recently we read a piece by The Times columnist Jenni Russell bemoaning the fact that so many disappointing books by well-known writers are ludicrously overpromoted these days. Publishing, she wrote, ‘doesn’t prioritize what’s good, it prioritizes what’s new’.
As everyone who lives here knows, spring in London doesn’t just signal daffodils in window boxes and budding trees in squares. It signals building projects. The whole city seems to be in a state of upheaval – ‘streets broken through and stopped; deep pits and trenches dug in the ground; enormous heaps of earth and clay thrown up . . . piles of scaffolding, and wildernesses of bricks’. That sounds like today, but in fact it’s Dickens in Dombey and Son describing the coming of the railway to Camden Town. London is forever changing and it’s certainly doing so now around the Slightly Foxed office in Hoxton Square – still fortunately a small haven of quiet, though only a few minutes’ walk from the gleaming office blocks of the new ‘Tech City’ rising around Old Street tube station . . .
I thought I could never feel fond of Charing Cross Road. In 1988, when I was 23, I spent a miserable three months there doing a ‘Sight and Sound’ typing course on the bleak first floor of a building next to the Garrick Theatre. Secretarial instruction was delivered over headphones to classrooms full of women and as I tried to follow the disembodied tutorials my fingers kept slipping and jamming between the keys of a hefty, black manual typewriter.
The whole vale was carpeted with bloom under a dappled sky. It was a late season; the trees had all come out together, ten million, twenty million boughs had burgeoned on the same blue-and-white April morning. The flowery tide ran…
As a fan of early jazz, I’ve read a great deal about Kansas City as it was in the 1930s. A most attractive place it seems in retrospect, of twenty-four-hour drinking and gambling, to the accompaniment of wonderful music provided by young, prodigiously talented and mostly black instrumentalists and singers; a wide-open city ruled over by a corrupt mayor, Boss Pendergast, whose main duty seems to have been to keep the good times rolling . . .
The villa was small and square, standing in its tiny garden with an air of pink-faced determination. Its shutters had been faded by the sun to a delicate creamy-green, cracked and bubbled in places. The garden, surrounded by tall fuchsia hedges, had the flowerbeds worked in complicated geometrical patterns, marked with smooth white stones. The white cobbled paths, scarcely as wide as a rake’s head, wound laboriously round beds hardly larger than a big straw hat, beds in the shape of stars, half-moons, triangles and circles, all overgrown with a shaggy tangle of flowers run wild.
It was like walking into different world, one of whirring machinery, pots of ink and the hustle and bustle of human activity . . .
Every paradise is lost. That’s kind of the point. Loss is the diagnostic feature of every paradise ever lived or imagined. But for five miraculous years and 120,000 miraculous words Gerald Durrell sustained a vision of paradise with joy in every day and every page. Most evocations of paradise dwell on the eventual loss: not here. My Family and Other Animals is a tale of uninterrupted delight . . .
I slipped into the world of Lesley Blanch’s swashbuckling cookbook, Round the World in Eighty Dishes (1955), before I’d even heard of it. It was the early ’60s, and I was on my first visit to Paris with friends from university. The city was sizzling in a July heatwave, and our host took us to an Arab quarter near St Michel, where we saw something extraordinary to our English eyes: people not just eating in the street but cooking in it.
I’m bound to admit that some of the experiences, and also, for heavens’ sake, the attitudes of the ‘pathetic ass who records his trivial life’ (as William Emrys Williams put it in his introduction to the Penguin edition of 1945), seem embarrassingly close to my own. Mr Pooter may have lived more than a hundred years ago – just up the road from where I live now, as it happens, in a house, er, rather similar to mine – but his psychology is timeless.
Always on this occasion my father’s firm provided sandwiches and drinks for all comers: dealers, smallholders, cowmen, shepherds, drovers. (The more substantial farmers were entertained to luncheon at the Swan.) Great were the preparations on the day before the market. Enormous joints sizzled in Old Cookie’s oven; baskets of loaves lay everywhere about the kitchen, huge pats of yellow butter, tongues, sausages, pasties. Maids were busy all day cutting sandwiches, which were piled on dishes and covered with napkins. There was an air of bustle and festivity all over the house . . .