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Issue 57

A Queer Parish

A Queer Parish

I was on a much-rehearsed trawl of the labyrinthine bookshop when I spotted it. A neat green-cloth country volume of the type churned out in their thousands in the 1940s and ’50s – years of hardship but also ones of optimism and dreams of a better future. I read the faded spine. A House in the Country by Ruth Adam, published by the Country Book Club, 1957. Now this is the kind of thing I like. My bookshelves sag under the collective weight of H. J. Massingham, Adrian Bell, Ronald Blythe and Cecil Torr, but Ruth Adam was new to me. ‘This is a cautionary tale, and true,’ the book begins . . .
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Wit and Truth

Wit and Truth

I first delved into Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s astringent and witty letters about fifteen years ago when compiling a Book of Days for the Folio Society. I had to find extracts for each day of the year, written on that day – so nearly all from diaries and letters. Towards the end of my search I was left with several stubbornly blank dates, and was even thinking I might have to write bogus entries, but she, along with Pepys, as it were saved the days.
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Out of the Celtic Twilight

A teenage boy is talking to his father in the library of their rambling Irish house. His father tells him to look at a particular picture; the moment he obeys, four armed men enter the room. But when he turns round, his father has vanished – apparently into thin air. So, in brilliantly dramatic fashion, begins Lord Dunsany’s The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933). As a novel it defies categorization, but if you imagine a John Buchan thriller with an overlay of the Celtic Twilight and Rachel Carson-style eco-prophecy you will be almost there.
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GBS and Me

My enthusiasm for George Bernard Shaw dates from 1950, when I was 12. On my way home from school it was my habit to buy a copy of the Star, one of London’s three evening papers, principally to check the cricket scores. One afternoon the front-page splash carried the bold headline: BERNARD SHAW DEAD. At the age of 94 he had fallen off a ladder while pruning his cherry tree, and he did not recover. I reasoned that a man who warranted front-page treatment must be a writer of consequence, so I resolved to discover more.
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A Boy in a Tattered Coat

A Boy in a Tattered Coat

The book was called The Star-Born. Its first chapters were about owls, especially one called Eldrich, which sounded to me like the shriek of doom heard before a death. The owls were frightening: hunting, nipping on the neck, tearing open and gobbling down a succession of soft small rodents whose long tails dangled from their beaks, and whose tiny bones made an ossuary of the ruins where they nested. The next chapters were filled with creatures who were nebu­lous and filmy: Leaf Spirit, Air Spirit, Water Spirit and Quill Spirit, who lived among the dripping ferns and sunbows of the gorge of the River Lyd.
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The Man Who Enjoyed Everything

The Man Who Enjoyed Everything

If Sir Edward Marsh appears in a few literary reference books, it is as the editor of five anthologies of Georgian poetry published between 1911 and 1922, the idea for which came from Rupert Brooke. As Brooke said, they ‘went up like a rocket’; ‘Yes, and came down like a stick,’ Marsh ruefully recalled. But his name pops up unexpectedly – usually just as ‘Eddie’ – in many memoirs and biographies of twentieth-century figures from Henry James to Ivor Novello, Somerset Maugham to David Cecil, D. H. to T. E. Lawrence. And he was for a quarter of a century the close friend and assistant of Winston Churchill.
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Misadventures in the Rag Trade

Misadventures in the Rag Trade

It remains one of the more surprising facts of life that the intrepid traveller Eric Newby, who by the time I knew him had the weatherbeaten cragginess of a man only happy when halfway up the Hindu Kush, should have carved out an earlier career astride the lower slopes of haute couture. Everyone has to start somewhere, however, and he put his first reluctant footprint on the fashion world as hapless gofer in the family firm of Lane & Newby, ‘Mantle Manufacturers and Wholesale Costumiers’ . . .
High Society, Low Life

High Society, Low Life

Marcel Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past begins, as I discussed in an earlier piece (SF no. 56), with the narrator recalling the times he spent as a boy in his great-aunt’s house in the village of Combray. There were two walks the family regularly took from the house, one in the direction of a property owned by a family friend, M. Swann, and the other in the direction of an estate owned by a very grand aristocratic family with local connections, the Guermantes. The Way by Swann’s, the first walk, is the name of the first book of Proust’s novel. The Guermantes Way, the second walk, is the name of the third, and with it the narrator and reader enter a new world, of dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses, and all the high society of Paris’s fashionable Faubourg Saint-Germain.
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A Crowning Achievement

A Crowning Achievement

Like so many Slightly Foxed readers, I was hooked by Netflix’s first series of The Crown. The lavish production, rumoured to have cost £100 million, the understated acting, the meticulous detail and the cut-glass accents – all gave each episode a sense of stunning authenticity. Claire Foy, in the role of the Queen, was immaculate and as compelling as anyone can be driving a Land Rover in twinset and pearls, and the series as a whole introduced us to a world of privilege and glamour at the very heart of the British establishment which is usually shrouded in secrecy.
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