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Frivolity, Filth and Fortitude

Frivolity, Filth and Fortitude

Among the excesses marking the dying days of the Bourbon ancien régime before it was swept away by the French Revolution was a craze for ridiculous hats. These structures elevated already flamboyant society coiffures to a level bordering on lunacy. Constructed from materials such as papier-mâché́, feathers and silk, they were worn to mark con- temporary events, from the death of a fêted individual to innovations such as ballooning. However, in a crowded field of eccentricity none could match the Duchesse de Lauzun who entered Mme du Deffand’s salon sporting an ‘entire tableau consisting of a stormy sea, ducks swimming near the shore and a man with a gun sprouting from her head. Above, on the crown, stood a mill with the miller’s wife being seduced by a priest, while over one ear the miller could be seen leading his donkey.’
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No Nylon Singlets

No Nylon Singlets

The first time I went to France, I was 9 years old, and we drove all the way there in my mother’s tiny Datsun. The second time, I was a teenager, and sans parents, and I kissed a boy called Sylvain who wore snow-washed jeans and a horrible white nylon vest. Ah, Sylvain. Chéri. To my knowledge, there is only one extant photograph of the two of us together. We’re sitting on a low wall somewhere in the countryside just east of Montélimar, and my face wears a rapturous expression.
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A New Angle on Life

A New Angle on Life

To save a little money for travelling before university, I took a job in the stockroom of a women’s fashion store in the nearest town. I had to be on site to receive deliveries before the store opened, which meant catching the bus that glided, spectre-like, past my rural home just before 5 a.m. most mornings. I kept watch, fully dressed for work under a quilted dressing-gown, by the window at the top of the stairs, so that I could spot the headlights between the trees and so have enough time to dash outside and flag it down with vigorous torch and arm-waving.
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Mooching Around With Maigret

Mooching Around With Maigret

Fifteen years ago I set out to invent a fictional detective to lead a series that I hoped would stretch to half a dozen novels. The great imperative was to come up with a character I could live with, a sort of notional flatmate whose habits, tics and jokes I would still be able to tolerate over a span of five or six years. To date Titus Cragg and I have cohabitated more than twice as long, and I still have no inclination to ask for his keys and show him the door.
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The In-Between Years

The In-Between Years

Nicholas Fisk (1923–2016) is a half-forgotten name now, and his memoir Pig Ignorant is a wholly forgotten book. It deserves not to be, and he deserves not to be. Fisk was a bestselling children’s writer through my own ’70s and ’80s childhood and was described by one critic as ‘the Huxley-Wyndham-Golding of children’s literature’. But if he is remembered now, it’s for his science fiction and only vaguely, and only by people about my age. There’s the Bradburyesque alien invasion horror Grinny (see SF no.78) and its sequel You Remember Me , the disconcerting genetic-engineering story A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair , and Trillions , in which tiny, collectively intelligent alien particles fall to earth like snow. In his most memorable stories the surface appearance of the world masks something darker and stranger. There’s a world behind the world.
Arrows of Revelation

Arrows of Revelation

Towards the end of Jane Austen’s Emma (1816), the heroine Emma Woodhouse has a moment of blinding clarity. Throughout the novel she has been treating her old friend and neighbour, Mr Knightley, as little more than a familiar sparring partner. But as she learns that her friend Harriet is harbouring dreams of marriage with him, the scales fall from her eyes. ‘It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!’
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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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