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Branching Out

Branching Out

In keeping with its name, Pimpernel Press has put down its roots in an unassuming Victorian house hidden at the end of a pleasant street off West London’s Harrow Road. The only hint that a publisher is in residence is the pile of tempting-looking books glimpsed from the front doorstep through the ground-floor bay window. Pimpernel’s publisher, Jo Christian, squeezes past me in the narrow hall to usher me into her combined office and living-room, where a long table is covered with a comfortable clutter of laptop, proofs, interesting objects and framed photographs. Beneath a wall thick with prints and paintings a pair of life-sized Coade stone greyhounds – refugees perhaps from some great house or garden – stand next to a large old sofa covered in piles of books. We’re clearly a long way here from the world of corporate publishing.
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Progression by Digression

In many ways The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a maddening book. It is funny, of course, but also eccentric, anarchic and longwinded; and it’s hard to understand why it survived to become a classic. Perhaps these days only university students and professors read Tristram Shandy. But for two centuries it was a family favourite. My great-grandfather Walter Congreve discovered it while lying wounded in hospital during the Boer War. He carried it with him – alongside the Bible – through the First World War, to his military command in Palestine and thence to Malta as governor.
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The Last of Rome

The Last of Rome

Desperation drove me to Horatius, one gloomy afternoon in late October. Thirty restless children were waiting to be entertained, educated or even just dissuaded from rioting by their hapless supply teacher. I gave them Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome – largely because my father’s recitation of ‘How Horatius Kept the Bridge’ had so grabbed and held my own attention, decades earlier. The drama of the thing still worked its magic: the bridge fell with a crash like thunder, whereupon ‘a long shout of triumph rose from the walls of Rome / As to the highest turret-tops was splashed the yellow foam’. My father would put gleeful stress on the word ‘yellow’. Then, of course, brave Horatius, fully armed and uttering a powerful prayer to Father Tiber, hurls himself into the turbulent river and makes it to the other shore.
A Vanished Warmth

A Vanished Warmth

At school I loved our history lessons. I spent hours drawing plans of castles and battles, and was a binge reader of historical fiction by anyone from Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece to Mary Renault and Robert Graves. A little later I enjoyed exploring first-hand evidence from the past and I particularly remember some volumes in the school library called They Saw It Happen. The third of these English historical anthologies, covering the years 1689–1897, was especially well-known to us because it had been compiled by bufferish Mr Charles-Edwards and suede-shoed Mr Richardson from our very own History Department.
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Giving Pain a Voice

Giving Pain a Voice

A lone doctor hares down a country lane in his Land Rover, his thumb jammed on the horn to warn the oncoming traffic that he’s not stopping. A woodman’s been pinned to the ground on a remote hillside by a falling tree and every second counts. Even at the start of A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (1967), we are given an inkling of what makes Dr Sassall an exceptional GP. He had his thumb on the horn partly, he explains, so that the man under the tree might hear it and know he is on his way. Dr Sassall understands that even when the immediate danger is physical, his patients need him to keep their minds in mind. A good doctor treats the whole of his patient, not just his wounds.
An Obscure Form of Magic

An Obscure Form of Magic

I’ve just read Party Going (1939), Henry Green’s comic and melancholic masterpiece, for the third or fourth time, and I’m still not sure how to convey its complex flavour. It’s a fantastically busy and exuberant novel, in which nothing really happens. (The major events include: an old lady picking up a dead pigeon and subsequently feeling ill; a beautiful young woman having a bath; a servant getting a kiss from a stranger.) It’s at once so beautifully written that I want to quote the whole thing, and so eccentrically stylized that it isn’t easy to find a quotable line. (Green was intolerant of standard English grammar and syntax; witness for example his take-’em-or-leave-’em approach to articles, as in the novel’s bizarre opening sentence: ‘Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.’) It’s an effervescent comedy of manners, set almost exclusively among members of the English upper class – and yet its most remarkable quality is an anguished sense of human suffering.
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Left, Left, Left

Left, Left, Left

In the early 1980s I began working on my first book, a biography of Nancy Mitford. Four of the six Mitford sisters were then still living, Pamela in the Cotswolds, Diana in Paris with her second husband Sir Oswald Mosley, Debo, wife of the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth, and Jessica, always known as ‘Decca’, with her family in California. Throughout my research Pam, Diana and Debo were immensely kind and helpful, all of them possessed of great charm and a slightly idiosyncratic sense of humour. They invited me to stay, gave me access to hundreds of letters, and mined for my benefit lucid memories of their early lives and of their family and friends.
A Separate World

A Separate World

When I think back to that first visit of mine to Estonia in 1988, I see muted, metallic-grey tones of fog and sea; above all I remember a sense of wonder that I was finally on my way to my mother’s homeland. Ingrid was 17 when, stateless and displaced, she arrived in England in 1947, having fled westwards from the Baltic ahead of Stalin’s advancing Red Army. She had not been back to her native land since. Now, half a century later, I was sailing to the Estonian capital of Tallinn from Helsinki – a three-hour journey by ferry across the Gulf of Finland. The Independent Magazine had asked me to report on Moscow’s waning power in the Soviet Baltic. A hammer and sickle flapped red from the ship’s stern as we set sail. The air was pungent with engine oil as I walked towards the stern and watched Helsinki’s Eastern Orthodox cathedral dwindle to a dot.
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1st September 2020

Slightly Foxed Issue 67: From the Editors

There’s a fox’s earth on the cover of this issue, but thanks in large part to you, this Fox has far from gone to earth. We’ve loved receiving your encouraging messages and emails during this difficult year, and you’ve pulled out all the stops with extra purchases, subscriptions and renewals. ‘I read Slightly Foxed in bed with my morning tea as an antidote to the news,’ writes N. Reifler. Now it’s autumn, and we’re happy to say that our publishing programme is up and running, with a great deal to look forward to.
- Gail Pirkis & Hazel Wood
From the editors
‘What larks!’

‘What larks!’

Essentially it is the story of the friendship between Christopher Robbins, a struggling young freelance journalist, and Brian Desmond Hurst, an ageing Irish film director who had already outlived his talents and gloriously continued to do so up to his death in 1986. For a delicious period of pure fantasy in the mid-1970s the two lived the life of Reilly together. When he first met Hurst the young Robbins was in his late twenties and vainly trying to claw his way out of perpetual debt. The agent of his introduction was an enigmatic American hipster masquerading as a German count whom he’d run into in Spain, and whose expertise was ‘putting people together’.

Life among the Ledgers

I am rather fond of the crowd that Dante meets at the very start of his journey into Hell with Virgil. They are all rushing around moaning and shrieking on the edge of the River Acheron, hoping that Charon the ferryman will carry them across. He refuses. When Dante asks who they are Virgil tells him that they are the ‘Futile’, the people who have done nothing in particular with their lives. They are not well-known for anything. They have achieved nothing spectacular either good or bad. They are not allowed into Heaven in case their dullness dims the radiant light of Paradise, and Hell won’t have them either because such an insipid bunch would downgrade the very notion of sinfulness. So they are not allowed passage across the river. They are seen hurrying to assemble under one flag and then fleeing in the opposite direction to assemble under another. They sound like most of us. Anyway, I number myself among them.
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A Modern Prospero

The Sea, The Sea was Iris Murdoch’s nineteenth novel and the only one to win the Booker Prize (in 1978). It is, to my mind, her best novel, as well as being the most representative of her talents and distinctive world view. It is also hypnotically readable. Actually all her novels are hypnotically readable (with the sad exception of her last, fractured book, Jackson’s Dilemma), but most contain certain faults of excess: passages of over-description, stagey scenes, unrealistic over-intellectualized dialogue, plotting whose artifice is all too obvious. This does not make them less lovable or less intellectually stimulating. Still: you can see the joins. This is not the case with The Sea, The Sea.
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Keeping up Appearances

Keeping up Appearances

Eve Garnett’s children’s novel was first published in 1937, with her own illustrations. At least eight publishers had rejected it on account of its supposed ‘grittiness’. Here was a story about an urban working-class family that detailed the endless struggles of Mr and Mrs Ruggles – a dustman and a washerwoman – to feed, clothe and shoe their seven children. In fact the book was probably the first ever British children’s book with working-class protagonists. Despite publishers’ initial reluctance, it was an immediate success. Serialized by the BBC in 1939, it won the Library Association’s prestigious Carnegie Medal – beating The Hobbit – and has been in print ever since. In a market saturated with stories about boarding-schools, nannies and improbable Swallows and Amazons-type adventures, parents and children alike warmed to the novelty of the Ruggles.
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Nothing but the Best

Nothing but the Best

It was grudgingly that I started to read Iris Origo’s The Merchant of Prato. My wife told me to. She had been referred to it for her studies. It sounded dry stuff, the re-creation of the life of a fourteenth century Tuscan businessman from his account books and correspondence. We had each been handed down copies of Iris’s immensely readable Images and Shadows (1970) in which she describes how in the 1920s she and her Italian husband bought the derelict estate of La Foce south of Siena and painstakingly re-established the mezzadria system. This had been used in Tuscany from the days of the Roman Republic, the landlords providing the upkeep of the farms and paying for half of everything needed for cultivation, and receiving in return a half share of all that was produced.

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