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Issue 76

1st December 2022

Slightly Foxed Issue 76: From the Editors

This issue of Slightly Foxed comes with our very best wishes to you all from all of us here for Christmas and the coming year. However there’s no escaping the fact that these are anxious times, and we were touched by a reader in Australia who wrote to us recently: ‘I can only say, to all the Slightly Foxed team, that you are a saviour. Slightly Foxed has kept me in touch, kept me sane, made me relish the humour, the warmth, the quirky charm of the English way of doing things.’ Wherever you are in the world, we hope you feel the same.
- Gail Pirkis & Hazel Wood
From the editors
‘String is my foible’

‘String is my foible’

A tarnished silver teapot. A tin of buttons, their parent garments long decayed. A bundle of yellowing letters, in my mother’s hand. Look: here she is, smiling in her nurse’s uniform in the photograph that used to sit upon the mantelpiece. But now she’s propped against moving boxes, still not unpacked. These are a few of the reasons why I cannot sit in my own front room, although there are more. It’s no use turning to Marie Kondo in this sort of situation; what I recommend is Elizabeth Gaskell. The narrator of Cranford (1851–3) knows all about hoarding. ‘String is my foible. My pockets get full of little hanks of it, picked up and twisted together, ready for uses that never come.’ And elastic bands – or, as Cranford puts it, India-rubber rings. Oh, don’t talk about India-rubber rings! ‘I have one which is not new,’ our narrator tells us, ‘one that I picked up off the floor, nearly six years ago. I have really tried to use it: but my heart failed me, and I could not commit the extravagance.’
SF magazine subscribers only
Shall I Be Me?

Shall I Be Me?

In the summer of 1953, briefly in London during the Coronation celebrations, I took myself to the Phoenix theatre (Upper Circle, 6s.) to see The Sleeping Prince, with the two glittering stars of the time, Laurence Olivier and his wife Vivien Leigh. Olivier had commis­sioned the piece especially for the season from the playwright Terence Rattigan, and the paper-thin plot had the Regent of Carpathia, in town for the 1911 Coronation, reluctantly mesmerized by a chorus girl. No play embellished by Olivier and Leigh could fail to captivate a popular audience, and this one had a good run – but for those with a more robust appetite it was really nothing more than a moderately tasty meringue.

Surprised by Joy

In the obituaries that appeared in 2021 for the Polish writer Adam Zagajewski, his prose, I was saddened to see, hardly got a mention. I suppose this is common with poets: their poetry is seen as the real work, and everything else is a sideline, left-handed writing. This is, to be fair, often the case. But Zagajewski was genuinely ambidextrous, writing just as many books of prose as poetry, and just as seriously. It was essentially the same work, only in a different form.
SF magazine subscribers only
A Northern Survivor

A Northern Survivor

Nestled in the heart of Orkney’s second largest town, on a main street uncoiling, as the Orcadian poet and writer George Mackay Brown described it, ‘like a sailor’s rope’, Stromness Books & Prints has sev­eral claims to fame. It’s the UK’s most northerly independent bookshop, and it’s ‘Scotland’s only drive-in bookshop’, as claimed by Tam MacPhail, who ran the business for many years. (This claim is based on the fact that the main street is narrow enough for drivers to stop outside the shop, open the window, shout a request through the door and be served without leaving the car.)
SF magazine subscribers only
. . . from the Trees

. . . from the Trees

In Issue 75, I said some books help you grow. Others help you let go. Our son was 17 when he disappeared. I’ll call him R. We bought our place that was big enough to plant trees when he was 14. We thought this was a good thing; he loved trees, so did we. While we were busy planting an orchard, a forest garden, he explored the ancient wood­land that surrounded us, taking an axe, a tinder box and a bivvy bag. We wouldn’t see him again until dark, sometimes not even then.
SF magazine subscribers only
A Recording Angel

A Recording Angel

From the long shelf of books about London that I keep (and keep adding to) the one I most cherish is The London Nobody Knows. Published sixty years ago, it is part whimsical vade mecum, part urban elegy, a book that celebrates the lesser-known nooks and cor­ners of a capital that was in drastic transition. Knocked about by German bombing twenty years earlier, London had then come under sustained assault from planners and developers largely inimical to the architectural quirks and anomalies of the Victorian age. The author, Geoffrey Fletcher (1923–2004), was working against the clock: the ‘tawdry, extravagant and eccentric’ place he loved was fast disappear­ing, and a recording angel like himself needed his wits about him if he was to preserve its memory. The year of the book’s appearance, 1962, had already seen the destruction of two major landmarks, the Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange. More were bound to follow.
SF magazine subscribers only
The Thread that Binds Them

The Thread that Binds Them

Some years ago, when writing a gardening article for an achingly right-on newspaper, I used the expression ‘other men’s flowers’. I cannot now remember in what context but I have not forgotten the sub-editor changing the phrase to ‘other people’s flowers’. I had fool­ishly imagined that, even if my readers did not know Montaigne – ‘I have gathered a posie of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is my own’ – they would at least recognize the play on the title of one of the great poetry anthologies of the twentieth century. Some hope.
SF magazine subscribers only

Reaping the Whirlwind

A warm summer day in 1987. A thump on my doorstep announces the arrival of a stout parcel with the familiar return address, BOMC, Book-of-the-Month Club. These were the pre-Internet days, when BOMC worked exclusively by mail. You had to open the brochure that arrived every three or four weeks and return the postcard that proclaimed you didn’t want the next month’s selection, or else it would be sent automatically. Having neglected to return the post­card, I found myself holding Freedom by William Safire, a 1,000-page novel about Abraham Lincoln and the first two years of America’s four-year Civil War, this account ending with Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a book I did not want and had no interest in. Still, it was here. I was here. There was no harm in having a look before I sent it back. I sat down and began to read. Three hours later I was still reading. Freedom would alter the trajec­tory of my reading for the next twenty years.
SF magazine subscribers only
The Sweetest Note of All Others

The Sweetest Note of All Others

Most of the houses of East Sheen in south-west London were built on farmland as part of the great explosion of suburbia between the 1890s and 1930s. The houses are solid and the rear gardens long. There are ancient copses in nearby Richmond Park and the surround­ing patches of common land but most of the garden trees were planted by the first residents and have grown over the years to maturity, just as the hedges of hawthorn and privet have grown taller and thicker. Patient gardening turns the soil and throws up worms and hundreds of other varieties of insect. A consequence of all this activ­ity is that, with the destruction of wild woodland and the poisoning of farmland by chemical fertilizers, perhaps the safest place for wild birds is now a leafy suburb – apart, that is, from the large number of cats, sitting with deadly patience under hedges and in long grass, but I’ll come back to them.
SF magazine subscribers only
Quick Brains and Slow Tongues

Quick Brains and Slow Tongues

My parents are both now dead. My father died last, aged 90, in 2016. I had always associated my love of books with my mother’s influence. My father’s passing, however, made me realize – too late – that most of the books I turn to for comfort are those to which he introduced me. I can track my childhood through the stories he read to me at bed­time, from Pooh and Alice through to Thurber, Leacock and Conan Doyle. Later came Chandler, Hašek and others. As we grew up, he continued to read some of these aloud to us, snorting with uncontrol­lable laughter at the jokes.
SF magazine subscribers only
A Friendly Looking Lot

A Friendly Looking Lot

When I was 6 I broke my arm and had to go to hospital to have it set in plaster of Paris. All this, both the breaking and the setting, made for an eventful day. When I got home there on the table was a book, a present to cheer me up (this was 1954 when presents for a not-birthday were perhaps rarer than they are now). The book was The Bell Family by Noel Streatfeild and I have it still. It’s the story of an impoverished vicar’s family who triumph over adversity by being, basically, nicer than their odious rich relations; there’s also a cleaning lady called Mrs Gage who has a heart of gold and drops her aitches. It seems very anachronistic now, but at 6 I was a sucker for heart-warming stories about gallant, united families. And I loved the illustrations, which were by Shirley Hughes.
SF magazine subscribers only
An Olympian Scoundrel

An Olympian Scoundrel

It’s a funny thing, humour. What makes you laugh out loud may leave me with a face like an Easter Island statue. In my own experi­ence the funniest books are non-fiction, and most of these are biographies. There really is nothing so strange or funny as real peo­ple. If I had to present my case, then Exhibit A would surely be Bernard Wasserstein’s The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln (1988), the extraordinary, meticulous, marvellously funny biography of a man who was – well, what exactly?
SF magazine subscribers only

Mr Gryce Meets His Match

Imagine you are at a pub quiz. It’s the literature round and the theme is literary firsts. What was the first novel in English? What was the first detective story? Readers of Slightly Foxed could probably hazard a guess at Robinson Crusoe and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. But what was the first ever piece of detective fiction written by a woman? It’s a question likely to leave most readers stumped. But just in case it ever comes up, the answer is The Leavenworth Case by Anna Katharine Green, published in 1878.
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