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Issue 79

Cooking with Confidence

Cooking with Confidence

The day before I sit down to write this piece, I am having lunch with my husband’s family. For pudding, Auntie Chris serves up her Christmas pudding. It is undoubtedly hers – always made to the same recipe, she tells us, the recipe her mother used before her. ‘I use the same one,’ her daughter chimes in. But of course, the recipe is also Marguerite Patten’s. What follows is warmth, recognition, even gratitude for a recipe that has become part of this family, woven into its years and celebrations. Quickly, everyone around the table admits to having a copy of Patten’s seminal book, Cookery in Colour – a book so ubiquitous that its now dated cover is almost instantly recognizable on a shelf.
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Too Sharp for Her Own Good

Too Sharp for Her Own Good

Stella Gibbons is hardly a forgotten writer, but she wrote more forgotten works than almost anyone else. Her first book, Cold Comfort Farm (1940: see SF no.10), has a secure and well-deserved place in the literary pantheon – it is a funny, sharp, tender and hugely quotable novel. Nothing else she wrote equalled its popularity, even the sequels, and by the turn of the millennium it was pretty much the only Gibbons book, out of twenty-five novels, three collections of short stories and four volumes of poems, left in print.
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Boiled Beef and Icy Bedrooms

In her long reign, stretching across eight decades, Queen Victoria had the support of a number of able and devoted courtiers. They helped her both to adapt to the alterations and accelerations during an era of great change and to serve as a centrepiece and anchor, preserving continuity and dispensing security. They had also, it must be said, to fall in with her demanding, often selfish style of living with its rigidly imposed and often tedious routines. And they had to find ways of softening and adjusting her more irrational or intemperate commands, reprimands and refusals. One must hope that a few of the courtiers who have come and gone during her great-great-granddaughter’s even longer reign also wrote letters or kept diaries. Then one day we may be as entertained and enlightened by them as by those that follow.
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Gone Away!

Gone Away!

Can you recall the novel that took you away from the nursery bookshelves and into the realms of Grown-Up Books – a gateway book, if you like? I happened upon mine after months of resisting efforts both at home and at school to get me to read something more challenging. Until then, as a pony-mad child without a pony, I’d sought refuge in my tattered copies of thrilling stories like Show-Jumping Secret and We Hunted Hounds by the Pullein-Thompson sisters. Then one day, entirely of my own volition, when I was perhaps 12 or 13, I reached for the blue, cloth-bound copy of Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man.
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A Farmboy Goes to War

A Farmboy Goes to War

One day, and only because I asked her what life had really been like in the Blitz, my mother told me not about terrifying explosions and damage and injury, but about a cold rainy day in November 1940, when with many others she watched an endless procession of lorries and carts pass in silence through the bombed centre of Coventry. The vehicles were carrying the bodies of the dead to mass graves. Most of the memories of that time are now like this; a few words passed down through families. And, inevitably, adult witnesses of that war become fewer and fewer as the years pass.
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Beyond the Safe Zone

Beyond the Safe Zone

Of all the hopeless tasks I have ever set myself, perhaps the most quixotic has been my attempt to persuade undergraduate historians to read fiction. In my experience the average student is pretty well allergic to the idea that they might ever venture beyond the safe zone of their set reading, let alone engage with something that (as they sometimes put it) ‘isn’t even true’. They may accept in principle the idea that fiction might in some vague and abstract sense prove personally enriching, but to suggest to a world-weary undergrad that a specific novel might have direct relevance to the actual topic they happen to be working on is to invite, nine times out of ten, a look of blank incomprehension.
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Looking Horror in the Eye

Looking Horror in the Eye

My father was a country priest, a bookish intellectual hidden in a Devon valley on the edge of Dartmoor. He was something of a Russophile, and among the books that lined the walls of his study was a section of Russian literature. I left school at 16, much to his bemusement, and in between odd bouts of employment and moping around like a teenage Oblomov I read through the canon of nineteenth-century Russian novels – they became my nourishment, my writer’s seedbed.
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Finding a Family

Finding a Family

Michael Cunningham is best known for his third novel The Hours (1998), later made into an equally successful film. But it’s his second, A Home at the End of the World(1991), which I consistently reread, knowing that its lyrical voice and profound insights will never fail to move me. The story is told by four voices, two male and two female, with such tenderness and sympathy that it’s clear how much the author loves his flawed characters. Bobby and Jonathan are young men growing up during the 1960s and ’70s, in Cleveland, Ohio. Bobby has a conventionally happy home with an adored older brother. His life has been infused by the ordinary and the actual – meals, school, parents. But by his early teens, his life has imploded.
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The Man Who Stopped at Nothing

The Man Who Stopped at Nothing

Some writers lead us into lives we’d never otherwise imagine; Michael Herr, writing on the fear and madness of war, was one; Thomas Merton on monastic seclusion, another. Oliver Sacks was one as well. He was an explorer of mind and brain, where words like inconceivable, or magical, or sometimes alas tragic, are not overblown but just plain fact. Everyone’s heard of the man, his wife and the hat – but Sacks met many, many others whose lives were just as much sources of wonder. He was open to them because his own experience was extraordinary too. His writings and his life are almost equally absorbing.
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At Sea with Slocum

At Sea with Slocum

Books can be ill served by the company they keep. In my childhood home they were shelved in the only bookcase and consisted entirely of anthologies published as Reader’s Digest Condensed Books plus the several volumes of Churchill’s The Second World War. None was ever read or even consulted. They were just part of the furniture. Something as slight as Joshua Slocum’s Sailing Alone around the World was lost amongst them. ‘That was Dad’s favourite book,’ said my mother as we cleared the house after his death. I’d no idea he had a favourite book, and it was not till some years later that, hoping to understand him better, I began turning its pages.
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Against the Current

Against the Current

Wallace Stegner seems on the brink of being forgotten. Half a century ago he was acknowledged as a major figure in American letters; one of his novels won the Pulitzer Prize, and another the National Book Award. He was highly regarded, not just as a novelist, but also as a pioneering teacher of creative writing and as a mentor to a generation of younger writers. Yet when I asked around recently, not one of my bookish acquaintances recognized his name. I had never heard of him myself until a friend recommended him on a pandemic relieving country walk.
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Verse and Worse

Verse and Worse

If the name Baring-Gould seems vaguely familiar, perhaps you grew up as I did, exposed every Sunday to Hymns Ancient and Modern. The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924) wrote many of them, including such traditional favourites as ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Now the Day is Over’. He was a hagiographer and an extraordinarily prolific writer, credited with over 1,240 publications on various subjects. He also found the time to father fourteen children, one of whom emigrated to America where his grandson, William Baring-Gould, was born in Minnesota in 1913.
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Such Devoted Sisters

Such Devoted Sisters

I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) one summer as a teenager. It’s a work of gothic horror, and a mystery novel. More specifically, it’s a strange, haunting story about a town that fears and is obsessed by two of its residents following the fatal poisoning of their family. I have always thought of it as a book about sisters, about Merricat and Constance, ‘two halves of the same person’. Endlessly self-absorbed, I spent my first reading thinking of my own sister. Our relationship was the most important and the most constant in my life, as we moved back and forth between the homes of our divorced parents. And so, of course, in the heat of the summer, with my sister my main source of company, I felt that this book had been written specifically for me.
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An Unusual Case

An Unusual Case

Richard Cobb’s memoir A Classical Education (1985) opens on a spring day in 1950. He is at St Lazare station in Paris awaiting the arrival of an old schoolfriend he’s not seen for fourteen years. Cobb has spent much of that time on the Continent, first as a soldier in the war and then as a historian researching various French archives. His friend, by contrast, has been shut away in a Dublin asylum for the entirety of those years, serving out his sentence for the murder of his mother.

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