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Issue 6

1st June 2005

Slightly Foxed Issue 6: From the Editors

It’s a hopeful time of year. The stalwart London plane trees have unfurled their leaves, and the sun is rising higher behind the City domes, towers and spires that we can see from our now not-so-new office windows. City-dwellers are beginning, as Hardy said, to ‘dream of the south and west’, and we hope that the travellers among you, armchair and otherwise, will enjoy Barnaby Rogerson’s piece on travel writing on p.11.
- Gail Pirkis & Hazel Wood
From the editors

The Editor Regrets

Suddenly, out of the blue, one morning in December 1965, a letter arrived on the delightfully old-fashioned headed notepaper of the Poetry Society (‘Patron, Sir Compton Mackenzie, LL.D., F.R.S.L., President, Professor Nevill Coghill, M.A., F.R.S.L.’), written, but not signed, by Robert Armstrong, Secretary and Treasurer. John Smith, it said, had decided that a four-year stint as Editor of the Poetry Review was ‘about enough’. He and Armstrong had undertaken ‘an intimate review’ of the situation, and were now writing to ask whether I might care to take on the job.
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No Whingeing!

No Whingeing!

A Little Bush Maid began as a serial, from newspaper articles which Minnie (as she was christened) Grant Bruce – a jobbing journalist in Melbourne – had contributed to the children’s page she edited. Popular demand made her editor suggest they might make a book. Though it still seems thinly episodic, it does introduce the main cast of characters: David Linton, the owner of Billabong, who had turned ‘in a night from a young man to an old one’ when his wife died; Norah herself, a tomboy and apple of her father’s eye; her big brother, Jim, away at boarding-school some of the time, an athlete and no intellectual, but straight as a die; Wally Meadows his mate, dark and cheerful, ‘a wag of a boy . . . [who] straightaway laid his boyish heart down at Norah’s feet, and was her slave from the first day they met’; Mrs Brown, the cook, ‘fat, good-natured and adoring’; black Billy, the stable-hand, whose command of English is limited to the word ‘plenty’; Mr Hogg the gardener; his sworn enemy, Lee Wing, the Chinese vegetable gardener (complete with queue, or pigtail); Mr Groom, the English storekeeper, who tries to teach Norah to play the piano by more than just ear; Murty O’Toole, head stockman; Dave Boone, one of the station-hands; Sarah and Mary, Irish housemaids; and of course the dogs and the horses, particularly Norah’s pony, Bobs. At the centre of the plot is the Hermit, whom Norah befriends and who turns out to be David Linton’s long-lost friend, an accountant wrongly accused of dishonesty, who as a consequence had faked his own death before hiding away in the bush.
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The Pick of the Pocket Editions

The Pick of the Pocket Editions

For those like me who look out for, and sometimes even retain, useless knowledge, the first World’s Classic, published in 1901, was Jane Eyre; the last in the original pre-paperback series, published in 1973, was Crime and Punishment. The latter was No. 619, making the series many hundred volumes shorter than the original Everyman edition of classics, and many hundreds longer than the modern Everyman which started in 1992. If you had read even half of its remarkable range, you could consider yourself very widely read.
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On the Loose

To compensate for this structural flaw, I went to Athens and had the adventure I wanted to have. Then I nipped back to Rome, found a seedy pensione and holed up there until he arrived. For two days I lived on peaches and pasta and read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin’s famous novel was published in 1956 when he was becoming not only America’s foremost black homosexual writer but also a spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin outspokenly held white America accountable for the racism poisoning its society. He insisted that, because whites could not love themselves, they could not love their black brothers and sisters, and that they paid for their persecution ‘by the lives they led’. Yet Giovanni’s Room contains not a single black character. It is as if Baldwin is writing above race and gender in order to draw universal conclusions. The boldness of the enterprise still astonishes me.
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A Positive View of Parasites

A Positive View of Parasites

A parasite is often to be admired for its ingenuity and persistence, even if it isn’t always attractive. A friend of mine once discovered a worm in his bed. It had come from his own body and had been living there for several months, beginning its tour in the previous March, when it manifested itself by giving him a cough and a bad chest. He found this out later when researching the life of the roundworm, which had apparently completed a convoluted journey round his interior, beginning in the spring. ‘The female roundworm’, he said proudly, ‘lays a quarter of a million eggs a day!’ It is perhaps a good idea to take this sort of positive view of parasitism, because, according to W. H. McNeill, author of Plagues and Peoples, we are all parasites. ‘Most human lives’, he writes, ‘are caught in a precarious equilibrium between the microparasitism of disease organisms and the macroparasitism of large-bodied predators, chief among which have been other human beings,’ the sort involved in ‘war, plunder, enslavement, tax farming’.
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Hoodwinkery and Legerdemain

Hoodwinkery and Legerdemain

The one thing that five of the six Stefan Zweig books currently in print in Britain have most strikingly in common is not the author’s consistency of style but his photograph opposite the title page. The most famous of these, The Royal Game, notorious in European and American chess circles for decades, is the only one innocent of his image, the publisher preferring instead to show us a sketch of the battleground whereupon that so-called royal game is fought. The photograph in the other five books is warmly revealing. Herr Zweig’s devilish Viennese smile – as evident yet as beautifully suppressed as a maître d’s as he spins a yarn to his richest and most despised customer that really, yes truly, there are no free tables tonight – underlines a polished French moustache which is given subtle uplift by the fourth finger of Zweig’s right hand lying against his cheek. Posing thus he exudes the supremely confident air of a conjuror, a salesman of Hispano-Suizas, a hypnotherapist; definitely someone not to be trusted – and one cannot help but speculate on what his left hand is doing.
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Feudal Afterglow

It is peculiarly exciting to turn a page and find a strong personal emotion exactly distilled – an emotion hitherto believed to be one’s private idiosyncrasy. Around the age of 13 most bookish children break into verse (the literary equivalent of acne) and I then wrote a ‘poem’ about corncrakes – specifically, what their crake did to me (and continued to do until farming became agribusiness and the crake was heard no more.) On p. 282 of Woodbrook David Thomson says in a few words what I failed to say in several feverishly florid verses.
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A Modest Superhero

A Modest Superhero

I can’t remember the moment when I decided to allow Biggles some space in my new novel, but I imagine he just turned up one day, demanding attention. An ingrained loyalty to past escapism meant that I had to take him seriously. There’s an inner store in my mind, a bag of glittery details that I’ve accumulated over the years. Biggles was probably sitting waiting for the opportunity and jumped out when I was rummaging around for something else.
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On Matters Mekong

On Matters Mekong

Scrolling idly through the SOAS Library’s subject catalogue, I must have brushed an unusual combination of keys, so activating a random function not mentioned on the options bar nor widely known to researchers. The feat has since proved impossible to repeat. But I keep trying; for it was thanks to this truly serendipitous action that up flashed a title which, for its crystal candour, can seldom have been bettered. Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos was so specific it had to be just that – a handbook and culinary guide to the fish to be found in landlocked Laos. The author was Alan Davidson, the publisher Prospect Books, the category ‘Long Loan’, and the status ‘Available’. Like a minnow into the reeds, I darted to the stacks.
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Going West

I am next to a businessman at a formal dinner. The conversation dries up after the soup. At a loss, I ask what sort of books he enjoys. Risky, I know. Either he won’t read, ‘except on planes when I buy whatever I can find at the airport’, or his answer will be as revealing as if I had asked him to tell me his life story. I am lucky. My businessman, more interested in fiction than foreign exchange, tells me, the book junkie, of a wonderful American author of whom I am ignorant. I am eternally grateful to him and still have the scrap of paper – menu on one side, ‘Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose’, on the other – which I stuffed into my tiny bag.
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