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Championing the Underdog

Championing the Underdog

From Herodotus’ and Thucydides’ time the war book has been with us as an ever-present literary companion to the massacres on the battlefield. I took Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44 to Iraq with me in 2004 and found its humanity and honesty instantly compelling. Graham Greene considered Lewis ‘one of our best writers, not of any particular decade but of our century’, and during the darker days in Iraq it was strangely comforting to realize that there is little new in conflict. From ‘friendly fire’ and war profiteers to prostitution and petty bureaucracy, it has all been seen before.
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A Poem Turned into a Sword

A Poem Turned into a Sword

The Woman Warrior was my book. I say this not to avoid accusations of parti pris – after all, everybody who writes about a book for Slightly Foxed can by definition be accused of that – but simply to make clear where I come from. In the winter of 1975 an agent sent the manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in New York, where I was a senior editor. It ended up in my hands, because I was supposed to be the house China expert. (I had picked up some Mandarin when I was in the army.) I remember reading it in a bleak, smoke-filled room in the Criminal Court Building on Centre Street while waiting for jury duty, and being stunned. I had never read anything like it before. I convinced my boss to take it on for publication.
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Mastering the Mutiny

Mastering the Mutiny

When John Masters’ Nightrunners of Bengal was first published in 1951, John Raymond in the Sunday Times described it as ‘the best historical novel about the Indian Mutiny that I have ever read’. In my view he’s right, although the power of the writing makes the subject matter almost irrelevant. As it is, the author has chosen one of the most chaotic and brutal episodes in the history of the British Empire in which to set his story – and he more than does it justice. It’s one of those novels that, once picked up, is almost impossible to put down. I’ve reread it many times and it still leaves me in a cold sweat of fear. It’s an old-fashioned book, written in an old-fashioned way, and it expresses old-fashioned values.
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A Great Adventure

A Great Adventure

In late December 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor set out on foot for Constantinople (as he anachronistically termed it). Recently expelled from school for the unpardonable crime of holding hands with a local girl, and insufficiently inspired by the prospect of Sandhurst and a career of peacetime soldiering, the 19-year-old decided to head east on foot. His backpack was evidently stuffed to the brim, with a greatcoat, jerseys, shirts (including white linen ones for dressy occasions), puttees, nailed boots, a selection of stationery, a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse and the first volume of the Loeb Horace.
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Hawking the Owls

Hawking the Owls

Open any magazine whose readers include novice or would-be writers – from Writers’ News to the London Review of Books to Mslexia – and it’s clear that there must be an increasing number of people prepared to pay to be published. There are numerous businesses which say they will turn your manuscript into a real book, and they probably do a decent job. But the real issue for a self-publisher, whether this is someone who does it virtually on their own as I do, or a company with a sales team, is marketing.
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Persia on Exmoor

Persia on Exmoor

The photograph in question fell out of a recently rediscovered book, The Far-Distant Oxus, in which horses – or rather ponies – play the leading role. The date of publication is 1937, the very year of the snap, though I am fairly sure that the book itself did not reach my hands until ten years later. Did I buy it myself with a Christmas or birthday book-token after foraging through the shelves of Bredon’s bookshop in Brighton? Or did a clever aunt send it to me? I don’t remember and it doesn’t matter. What I can still recall is how I fell in love with it – with the dust jacket, the line drawings and the subject: ponies, Exmoor and children. I was totally ignorant of the first two but reckoned I did know something about the third.
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A Lost Generation

A Lost Generation

Many years ago my wife and I were confined by the police to our hot hotel in Rhodes for an evening, a fate we shared with other tourists as a result of anticipated demonstrations against the appearance of a Turkish ship in the harbour. It was another time of strained relations between Greeks and Turks. Up in our room, I decided it was time I asserted myself as a war correspondent. Out on the balcony with notepad and pen, I could hear the anger and the pounding feet below. I began to scribble – then heard the launching of canisters, smelled the tear gas and nimbly stepped back into our room, all my bravado gone. I picked up the Hemingway I had been reading and poured myself another glass of retsina. He can take you that way.
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Black Dogs and Stone Pianos

Black Dogs and Stone Pianos

Despite the solidity of its dry stone walls and its rugged beauty, the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales is fragile. By the 1920s, more vulnerable still was the way of life that had continued there for hundreds of years but which was rapidly dying out. Two young women – the writer Ella Pontefract and the artist Marie Hartley – realized that if no record were kept, more than a thousand years of rural tradition would vanish without trace. They decided to do something about it, and embarked on a remarkable literary enterprise that continues to illuminate the life and lore of the Dales. The collaboration was also to bring the companions domestic fulfilment and, to their surprise, a whiff of celebrity.
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Hurricane Clarice

Hurricane Clarice

The sleeper lounge is old-fashioned British Rail, all tartan carpet, smeared tables and microwave cuisine. Tonight it contains a gathering of solitaries, all of us making separate journeys to London. The man beside me is still working, though it’s nearly ten o’clock. By chance we order the same whisky. We raise our plastic glasses, embarrassed in a very British way. I want to encourage him. He is at war with a pile of papers. But he is wishing me good luck as well. He has been glancing at the author’s face on the back cover of my novel. She does rather stare . . .
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Shop with a Heart

Shop with a Heart

Every Friday afternoon I go to work in our local Amnesty secondhand bookshop, and each week I notice a shabby cover of a book entitled If Jesus Came to My House stuck on one of the walls. Few people see this unusual decoration as it is over the back stairs, with an admonitory notice next to it which reads, ‘This slim tatty little volume sold for £30.’ The book in question was sold by the shop’s Internet team, and serves to remind the staff that they may not know what a book is worth until they start selling it to someone else.
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Talking to the Major

Talking to the Major

Percy F. Westerman (1876–1959) was one of the most popular writers of boys’ adventure stories from the 1920s to the 1950s. In their brightly coloured dust-jackets his historical tales – books about the Great War or the early days of aviation – sold in their thousands, and in the Thirties he was acclaimed as the most popular boys’ author in a referendum run by the Daily Sketch. By the time he died he had written nearly 200 books, which had been translated into many languages, and achieved sales of one and a half million copies. Many readers of Slightly Foxed will remember the excitement they felt when they first encountered the exploits of Standish, the flying detective, in such tales as The Amir’s Ruby (1932) or Standish Gets His Man (1938).
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