BOOKS – SLIGHTLY FOXED
by Tristan Summerscale
These friends tend to be better read than you, and wittier, but are far too civilised to ever make you feel bad about that, or even aware of it at the time. That’s why reading this review is such a pleasure compared with some of the more ponderous titles available that stagger under the weight of their own learning, and ask you to stagger with them as you read.
Launched in 2003, the publication is 100 odd pages long, printed on beautiful cream paper that is a pleasure to leaf through, and is replete with beautiful hand drawn illustrations. It opens with Daisy Hay affectionately revisiting The Young Visiters, a novel published in 1919 and written by a 39 year old secretary called Daisy Ashford. Hay quotes Katherine Mansfield’s review of the novel when it first appeared:
‘This is the story of Mr Salteena’s plan to become a real gentleman…of his unrequited love for the fair and flighty Ethel Monticue, of Bernard Clark’s dashing and successful wooing of Ethel, together with some very rich, costly pictures of High Society, a levie at Buckingham Palace, a description of the Compartments at the Crystale Palace occupied by Earls and Dukes, and a very surprising account of the goings on at the Gaiety Hotel.’
Mansfield’s synopsis perfectly encapsulates the wonderfully childish eccentricity of a novel that was in fact written by it author at the age of 9 in 1890. Hay herself proves equally adept at finding glorious phrases and passages as she seeks to answer the question ‘Why was The Young Visiters so popular and why does it endure?’.
An essay on the artist Edward Ardizzonne is followed by a piece from the short story writer Sue Gee on the novelist Jane Gardam. She focuses on Gardam’s recurring character Sir Edward Feathers, known as Filth (‘Failed in London, Try Hong Kong’). Gee describes him brilliantly as he first appears in Old Filth ‘in his eighties, tall, distinguished, elegant, bereaved.’ The piece has the same strength as many, if not all, of the articles in Slightly Foxed: it draws you into the work of the subject, recalling their qualities if you are already acquainted with their writing, and giving you the urge to get to know them if you are not.
This characteristic is perhaps best exhibited in John Julius Norwich’s piece on his godfather Maurice Baring’s Have You Anything to Declare? which he describes as ‘the best anthology of poetry and prose that I know’. He quotes the first line, which might easily have been written about Slightly Foxed itself ‘This…is not meant for scholars nor for the learned, but for those who, like myself, although they have only a smattering of letters, are fond of books and fond of reading.’ Baring’s anthology sounds like a wonderful collection of writing from someone who Norwich describes as ‘a man of deep culture, dazzling intelligence and, above all, irresistible charm.’ An extract that Norwich quotes, selected by Baring from The Sinner’s Comedy, seems to sum up this charm effectively.
It describes the death of the ninth Lord Middlehurst:
‘He did not speak again till just before he died, when he kissed his wife’s hand with a singular tenderness, and called her Elizabeth. She had been christened Augusta Frederica but then, as the doctors explained, dying men often make these mistakes.’
It is perhaps best to explore Slightly Foxed by dipping into it at random, and there is much more that is worth exploring in it, on an impressive range of topics. Geoff Brandwood writes on the joys of the pub, while Juliet Gardiner discusses the architecture of the 1930s and R.C Sherriff’s novel Greengates. There then follows a move to the continent as Anne Boston discusses Joann Sfar’s Le Chat du Rabbin. Sfar’s series of cartoon books started in 2002, almost a decade before he found a wider audience with the film Gainsbourg, a critical success in 2010. It is impossible not to be seduced by Boston’s description of a ‘pre-War Levantine world’ where ‘You can almost smell the orange blosson, cooking spices, and fish off the boats in the harbour.’
An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie is the subject of Sara Wheeler’s ‘Tips about Icebergs’, where she recognises in his work the hallmark of great travel writing as it ‘held up a mirror, and the Arctic reflected back the world.’ Anthony Wood, writing on John Betjeman’s long poem on his education Summoned by Bells, urges us to revisit a work he feels has been unjustly relegated in stature behind his shorter poems. Diana Athill follows, with a wonderful phrase on W.G Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz ,by all accounts a great and harrowing novel:
‘A great writer does not examine the terrible truths in order to comfort or entertain. He does it as part of the human struggle to understand ourselves and make a stand against what is wrong with us.’
The final third of the publication is kicked off by Ariane Banks evocative description of three Hebridean islands, bought by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the late 1930s. Their grandson Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room is described as ‘a love letter to the Shiants, written after more than two decades of growing intimacy with these stark indifferent rocks, as he prepares to hand them on in turn to his own son Tom’. Hazel Wood reports on a new poetry publisher, the Candlestick Press, while Caroline Jackson tracks the career of Molly Keane, just pipped to the Booker Prize in 1981 by Salman Rushdie, and whose only acknowledged influence was Jane Austen. Sarah Crowden follows with a piece on the forgotten contemporary of Eveylyn Waugh, Beverley Nichols. After an article from Derek Parker on the 17th Century biographer and author of Great Lives, John Aubrey, who ‘wrote of great men without fear or favour’, the magazine finishes up with a witty and warm article on literary Acknowledgements from Oliver Pritchett (keep an eye out for an interview with Oliver on the NFTU site soon along with an extract from his piece).
Slightly Foxed then is a magazine for those that appreciate proper writing and learning, but who want it presented in an unstuffy way. It is for people whose interests are broad and it is for those who love things that are beautifully produced, with care and attention. I heartily recommend it.www.foxedquarterly.com and www.foxedbooks.com