Friday, 12 March 2021


I was sent a copy of Roger Deakin's Waterlog by my elder daughter recently. She's a swimmer herself, who'd be only too happy to emulate Deakin's wild-swim around the British Isles. I'm not so brave: I prefer warm Mediterranean or Southern African seas - or outdoor swimming pools, at a pinch. What I do not like is swimming in cold dark water where all sorts of not necessarily well-intentioned things might be lurking in the depths (a dislike reinforced by spending much of my life in places with too many crocodiles for comfort) but I love this book for the charm of the author and the beauty of his writing. And the wonderful humour.

Here he is, quoting a drinking companion in the Three Tuns at Welney, who said 'they were all salt of the earth in the Fens and would give you a sack of potatoes as soon as look at you...' Beyond Cambridge, however, 'They wouldn't give you the drippings off the end of their nose.' And a wonderful account of a wildlife training session when small tubs of otter and mink poo were passed around, in the manner of a wine tasting, to be sniffed and described as 'fragrant', with something of the quality of jasmine tea (otter spraint) or a smell like burnt rubber and rotten fish (mink scat). And I bet you didn't know about spraint and scats either.

I've also been reading, for the first time, a Peter Temple thriller, The Broken Shore. Temple, like me, was South African by birth, but ended up living in Australia, and he brings the people and place to almost startlingly vivid life. He doesn't shy away from racism and bigotry, but he fleshes out his characters with great humanity and humour, and his combination of crackling dialogue, plot and pace add up to a master class in crime writing. I can see exactly why he won so many awards - I couldn't put him down. Nor can Professor Gloom - I just looked into his study, where he is meant to be taking part in an online Hot Star workshop (don't get excited: it's the astronomical rather than Hollywood sort) and there, out of sight on his knees, was an open book, Peter Temple's Truth, in which he was a lot more interested.

Another treat arrived last week: the Winter edition of Slightly Foxed. I love Slightly Foxed for so many reasons: it's full of (short) well-written pieces on old, forgotten, quirky, much loved books, as well as ones I've never encountered, and it entirely lives up to its billing as a 'lively, quarterly review for the independent-minded'. They also send you notes on their delightful cards, which then make charming bookmarks - my  favourite bookmarks (see some below) being one of the many things that add to the pleasure of reading actual physical books.

I go through back numbers of SF regularly (my set is almost complete, only a dozen or so missing from the 69 published so far) and there is always something worth reading again. I needed to do some research on Nancy Mitford recently, and in doing so rediscovered a hilarious piece by Michele Hanson on The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and Mitford's absolute freedom, at the time, from the constraints of political correctness. Not many writers these days would dare to invent Uncle Matthew, but as Hanson says, Mitford 'observes pitilessly, and then she forgives. If only more of us could do that, the world would be a better place.' 

Slightly Foxed (both of us)
There is also, in this winter issue, wise advice from Barbara Hepworth in her Pictorial Autobiography that many writers might consider. Hepworth, an artist with a family of four (three of them triplets) wrote that ' formed my ideas that a woman artist is not deprived by cooking and having children, nor by nursing children with measles (even in triplicate) - one is in fact nourished by this rich life, provided one always does some work each day; even a single half hour, so that the images grow in one's mind.' Slightly Foxed have an excellent podcast too: I urge you to do yourself a favour and listen in.

Fashions in novels (and novelists) change almost as fast as Covid  variants, and having recently had to complete my Census details  and admit to being elderly, white, middle-class and straight - a  combination for which, as a writer, I find myself feeling faintly  apologetic - I don't expect to be published again. On the  other hand, I'm deeply grateful to Slightly Foxed for regularly  reminding me of the books that have changed some of us for life, and the many, many more that have simply given pleasure - and will go on doing so, no matter who wrote them.

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