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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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The Man in the Lavender Suit

The Man in the Lavender Suit

I’ve always thought journals and letters among the best of bedside books. The entries, for one thing, are just long enough, usually, to end as drowsiness begins to be irresistible. I first came across one of Horace Walpole’s letters in an anthology, and thought it was as entertaining as one of Byron’s. I looked out more of them; they too were as entertaining as Byron’s – maybe even more so. I had recently given up buying, volume by volume as they came out, the great Murray edition of Byron’s letters, on the grounds that they had become too expensive; a decision I now regret with inexpressible bitterness. But maybe there was an affordable collected edition of Walpole’s.
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Flashman’s Nemesis

In Slightly Foxed No.33, Andrew Nixon paid homage to George MacDonald Fraser’s splendid creation, the appalling Flashman; and Patrick Mercer, himself an infantryman, drew attention to Quartered Safe Out Here, Fraser’s autobiographical account of his own service as an Other Rank in the Border Regiment. But both omitted mention of Fraser’s other marvellous creation, the infamous Private McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier ever to grace the tartan of a Highland regiment.
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Adventures in Achromatopsia

The Island of the Colour-blind was given to me by a friend who was himself red-green colour-blind. This discovery, early in our relationship, illuminated several of his quirks: a terrible dress sense, a preference for Dürer engravings over Impressionist sunsets, a comment made on an early date that our shirts ‘matched’ (I was in damson, he was in scarlet – the two shades of red clashed horribly). As a biologist, I thought I knew about colour-blindness, but this wonderfully weird book gave me a whole new perspective on the phenomenon.
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Putting the Hum into the Humdrum

Putting the Hum into the Humdrum

I first encountered John Hegley in the early ’90s, though only obliquely, via a schoolfriend who was hipper than me and had one of John’s early pamphlets. He showed me a limerick about ‘a creature from space/who entered a three-legged race/he was not very fast/in fact he came last/because he was a bag of oven-ready chips’. It may not look like much on the page, but it has three important things going for it: it’s silly; it’s short; and it makes full use of the last line, adding an extra foot to give the surprise a bigger kick.
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Neither a Borrower . . . ?

Neither a Borrower . . . ?

Every year the registrar of Public Lending Right issues a report on the authors whose books have been most often borrowed from libraries. You can be sure these days that Danielle Steel, Josephine Cox and James Patterson will be up there with the leaders, but it might be more interesting, I think, to discover the name of the author whose books we borrow most often from each other. We need more information about these delicate transactions between friends. I’d also like to know the title of the book which is most often borrowed and never returned, and I’d be disappointed to learn that it was something like A Sensible Guide to Home Plumbing or The Grouter’s Friend . . .
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The Wild Ginger Man

It was a 1967 Corgi edition of The Ginger Man by J. P. Donleavy: ‘Complete’ and, most promisingly, ‘Unexpurgated’. Of course I had no inkling then of the tortuous publication saga that lay behind that word ‘Unexpurgated’. Nor was I to know that the novel would come to have a profound effect on me – on the way I thought about literature and language, and about human nature in all its secret darkness. I retreated to my bedroom to devour The Ginger Man, but by the time I’d reached the first sex scene I’d forgotten that it was supposed to be a dirty book because, like so many readers before me, I had become transfixed by the outrageous charisma of its protagonist, that indelible monster Sebastian Balfe Dangerfield.
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Map Magic

Map Magic

When I worked on a national newspaper, an old, battered copy of The Times Atlas of the World stood propped against the Comment desk. The red cloth binding had come off and the signatures had fallen apart, like breakaway provinces seceding from a crumbling empire. As various benighted places – Darfur, Basra, Helmand – were thrust into the headlines, our reporters and subs would make off with the relevant pages. This battered relic featured countries that no longer existed: Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Yugoslavia and, sprawling across a third of the planet, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
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A World of Words

Whether by luck or judgement I don’t now remember, but I first came across the work of Amos Oz in 1984. The occasion was my sole visit to Israel, when I needed a contemporary guide, my only other literary encounter with Jewish culture having been three historical novels by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Somewhere between Singer’s nineteenth-century Poland and Oz’s modern stories came the horrors of the Nazi era: the bit of Jewish history that everyone knows and that is built into everyone’s idea of the state of Israel. It was in my mind at the time, not least because the parents of our Israeli friend bore the tattoos of the concentration camp on their forearms.
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The Sound of Youth

The Sound of Youth

It’s odd to recall that until the rock and pop revolution of the early Sixties, most British towns had at least one band, usually consisting of a trumpet and trombone, drummer, bass player and out-of-tune pianist thumping out rough versions of New Orleans and Dixieland jazz to young audiences in the back rooms of pubs. This was good drinking and jiving music, although as a young smart alec in those days I snobbishly preferred modern jazz. However, in no forms of jazz did I ever see anyone playing the bass saxophone, the instrument celebrated in Josef Škvorecký’s wonderful novella The Bass Saxophone.
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Dreaming of the Bosphorus

My father Irfan Orga (1908–70) first set foot in England in July 1942, as a staff captain commanding Turkish Air Force pilots completing their training with the RAF. The posting changed his life. In London, challenging the Turkish law of the day forbidding members of the armed forces or diplomatic service from cohabiting with foreign nationals, he took up with a young, irregularly beautiful Norman-Irish lapsed Catholic, Margaret, then married to someone else. She assumed his surname in 1944, seven months before I was born.
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