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Impressive first novel with an unlikely heroine 21 February, 2021

Ruth Leigh’s debut novel, The Diary of Isabella M Smugge, came as a pleasant surprise.

Isabella, successful lifestyle influencer and social-media addict, may insist her name is pronounced to rhyme with ‘Bruges’, but five minutes in her company convince us otherwise: this woman is smug to the very core of her self-obsessed being. Recently moved from London to the country with her perfect husband, organically fed children and treasured Latvian nanny, she’s everything that any right-thinking person (including the more down-to-earth villagers who are her new neighbours) despises.

Or is she? Is her life as perfect as she would have us believe? And is she really as ghastly as she seems?

You may think you are never going to be able to like this woman, but do persist. Issy’s reminiscence of cutting off one of the school bully’s plaits to protect her younger sister years ago is genuinely touching; the scene when she tells the story to the son who normally thinks she is sooooo embarrassing is hilarious. There may be more to her story than meets the eye.

How Effectual Is That? 27 February, 2020

My latest reading is a collection of essays by Mollie Panter-Downes, written from London for the New Yorker during the Second World War. She uses the word effectually, really surprisingly often, to mean what most of us would mean by effectively these days - i.e. more or less, to all practical purposes. It makes me wonder when effectively became the commoner of the two, and if it caused the sort of outcry that I still raise at the misuse of literally, as in ‘I literally died laughing when I heard the news.’

When New Words Come Along 15 August, 2019

I'm reading a book that was first published in 1846 and (admittedly in a translated-from-the-Russian version) there is a moment when the hero is struck by the glossiness of his boss's shoes, 'acting as powerful reflectors':

‘That's called a high-light,' thought our hero. 'The term is used particularly in artists' studios…'

Not only is the word 'high-light' hyphenated and printed in italics, both devices to show that the idea is quite new, but the author feels obliged to explain what it means. Any of those three things would be completely unnecessary today.

It made me think that it can't be much more than three years ago that we were seeing ‘Brexit’ in inverted commas, suggesting that the word was a recent coinage and the concept as unfamiliar as 'high-lights' were in Dosteovsky's day.

Improve Your Word Power 04 July, 2019

Does consanguineous mean:

  • agreeable
  • closely related
  • easy to see?

Is gallimaufry:

  • a cold wind
  • a jumble
  • a swear word?

These are just two of the hundreds of choices offered in my new book, Improve Your Word Power (see my books page), published in a few days’ time. Though I say it myself, it's quite fun. Making up the wrong definitions was the hardest part, and I can't help feeling that although gallimaufry means a jumble, it would be very useful as a swear word.

Christmas at War 20 December, 2018

There’s been a very touching response to the publication of this book. I’ve had lots of lovely cards and emails from the elderly people who contributed to it, or the offspring of those whose memoirs I quoted - all delighted to see their stories getting a new outlet.

The sad thing is that, since I did the research about 18 months ago, at least five of those who shared memories with me have died. So there’s a lesson here, and not just to do with the deprivations of the war: if you have elderly people in your life, particularly if they are relatives, talk to them. Talk to them NOW, while you can. Get their stories, not necessarily down on paper, but into your head. Because once the people are gone, those stories are gone too. And gone forever.

But here’s a happy coincidence. One of those who died was my aunt. Her daughter, planning the funeral, got in touch to say that she didn’t know a great deal about her mother’s early life and could I fill in any blanks. Because my aunt had sent me a story for the book, I was able to send that to my cousin - and it was read at the service. A warm moment on a sad occasion.

A number of people – not all of them respectful 21 May, 2018

Can it really be almost a year since I last posted a blog? What have I been doing?

Well, lately, I’ve been reading A Number of People, a memoir by Edward Marsh, who was not only Private Secretary to Winston Churchill for much of his early career, but also a poet, editor, translator and friend of everyone from Rupert Brooke to Lady Violet Bonham-Carter. He manages not to have a bad word to say about anyone without ever becoming dull.

I’m reading an elderly copy borrowed from the library; someone before me has read it with a pencil in their hand and made occasional annotations. When Marsh mentions Charles Scott-Moncrieff, whom he describes as ‘Proust’s incomparable translator’, my unknown predecessor has dignified the page with a squiggle under ‘incomparable’ and two question marks in the margin. You’d think - you really would think - that someone who was sufficiently literary-minded to have a view on different translators of Proust would also have more respect for the sanctity of library books. Obviously not.

By the way, as so often, I ought to thank my favourite magazine, Slightly Foxed, for pointing me in the direction of this book.

The Accidental Apostrophe 16 October, 2017

It’s been quite a year, but even so I am horrified to see that it’s seven months since I posted a blog. Note to self: must do better.

But The Accidental Apostrophe... and other misadventures in the English language is out this week and is, though I say it myself, quite fun - and it certainly has a fabulous cover. Have a look on my books page.

Great Modern Writers 20 March, 2017

Last year I had the great honour of being asked to provide the text for a book by wonderful graphic artist Andy Tuohy. It was an A- Z of Great Modern Writers and it followed earlier volumes Andy had produced with other authors, on artists and film directors. Writing it was one of the most stimulating experiences I’ve had in a long time: I had to read or re-read books by authors ranging (alphabetically) from Maya Angelou to Stefan Zweig, and to encourage newcomers to take an interest in James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse and Toni Morrison. Fifty-two authors in total. It kept my brain buzzing for months.

Anyway, it’s just been published. Look out for it. It’s gorgeous. And, I hope, quite interesting.

Matters of Modern Etiquette 13 December, 2016

The Question (@thequestionuk) have recently asked me to be their ‘expert’ on some matters of etiquette, including the single change that I think would most improve the modern world. I came up with the idea of banning people from staring at their phones as they walk along the street: have a look.

But I’ve just come across something else I think is terribly rude: having a long conversation on the phone while you’re in the hairdresser’s. The woman two chairs along from me this morning told me much more than I needed to know about a friend of hers who had recently given birth. OK, she was speaking in French, but in polyglot London that surely isn’t a guarantee of privacy. And whatever language you speak, it’s still treating your stylist as if she were an automaton.

A-Z of Great Modern Writers 05 July, 2016

I’ve just delivered the text for this - it’s an illustrated guide by the amazing graphic artist Andy Tuohy, who has already produced similar books on great artists and great film directors.

Not only will be look fabulous, it’s been enormous fun to work on. I’ve been reading (or re-reading for the first time in decades) books by all sorts of people from Chinua Achebe to Stefan Zweig, with Jorge Luis Borges, Nadine Gordimer, Graham Greene, Franz Kafka, Clarice Lispector, Toni Morrison, George Orwell, John Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf and 41 others in between. It isn’t published until March, but look out for it!

Yet Another Book I Wish I’d Written 14 May, 2016

The Last Tycoon by F Scott Fitzgerald. More to the point, I wish he’d lived to finish it. He is so good at writing about loss.

The ending he mapped out sounds a bit melodramatic, but apparently he used to rewrite madly from draft to draft, so perhaps he’d have come up with something better. Sadly, I shall never know.

The Brilliant Margaret Atwood 19 March, 2016

I’m re-reading Lady Oracle, one of her early novels, and have just come across this, about the jade snuff boxes and enamelled perfume bottles on sale in Portobello Road:

How difficult these objects are to dispose of, I thought; they lurk passively, like vampire sheep, waiting for someone to buy them.

Vampire sheep? Where do they come from? And is lurking passively an identifying feature? I had no idea.

Then, a few pages later, finding out about her new boyfriend’s left-wing heroes (bear in mind that the narrator used to be extremely fat):

Mao was my favorite, you could tell he liked to eat. I pictured him wolfing down huge Chinese meals, with relish and no guilt, happy children climbing all over him. He was like an inflated Jolly Green Giant except yellow, he wrote poetry, he had fun.…He encouraged jugglers and spectacles, he liked the color red and flags and parades and table tennis; he knew the people needed food and escape, not just sermons. I liked to think about him in the bath-tub, all covered with soap, like an enormous cherub.

Not, perhaps, an in-depth study of the motives behind the Cultural Revolution, but a fabulous piece of writing.

Unspeak 16 March, 2016

Just been reading an amazing/disturbing book by Steven Poole: Unspeak, about the appalling way we ( the media, politicians, the rest of us - pervert language to our own ends. I’ll be more careful how I use the word ‘community’ in future, not to mention ‘abuse’ and ‘freedom’. Absolutely fascinating.

New Words for Old 13 November, 2015

My book about how we recycle our language was published last week, so I was chuffed to go to a jazz gig last night and hear a genuine example that I had used. The pianist introduced another member of his trio as being ‘on acoustic guitar’. In New Words for Old I mention the fact that all guitars used to be acoustic, so it went without saying; then when electric guitars became the norm in rock bands (from about the 1950s onwards), if you just said ‘guitar’ you probably meant ‘electric guitar’; if you were playing acoustic guitar you had to specify.

We have a modern analogy with that even more familiar object, the book. Until the e-book came along, no one would have dreamed of talking about a ‘print book’, because there was no other kind. It remains to be seen whether e-books come to dominate so much that they become simply ‘books’, because their electronicness goes without saying.

Here’s a Funny (but Pleasing) Thing 08 June, 2015

The other day, someone I had never heard of on Twitter tweeted that an extract from my book My Grammar and I (or Should That Be ‘Me’?) had made his day. Since then the same extract has been favourited by about a dozen other people that I don’t know.

The nice parts of this are

1) that the book was published in 2008 and someone is still reading it and<
2) that the extract in question is on page 189, so he’s got quite a long way through it.

The extract is in fact a footnote to a piece of English gobbledygook by George W Bush. It’s the third or fourth reference in the book to Bush’s idiosyncratic English and the footnote reads, ‘Yes, him again. Where would this book - and the free world - have been without him?’

Mildly amusing, I hope you’ll agree. The funny and faintly embarrassing aspect is that I don’t remember - seven years on - whether or not it was me (or I) who wrote this. The book was a collaboration and it was my partner in crime who produced the first draft, though I am pretty sure that the idea for jokey footnotes was mine. But did I come up with this crack, or was it added later by our brilliant editor, who is thanked in the acknowledgements for ‘sillinesses’? I have no idea. If it was you, Jacqui, or you, Silvia, please accept my apologies for apparently taking the credit.

Books I Wish I’d Written # 542: Three Men in a Boat 24 April, 2015

In case you haven’t come across it, it’s by Jerome K Jerome and was published in 1889.

Just by way of example: George, Harris and the narrator, J, have been on the river a few days (it hasn’t started to rain yet, so they are still more or less enjoying themselves) and settle down to a lunch of cold beef, only to find that they have forgotten to bring mustard.

I don’t think I ever in my life, before or since, felt I wanted mustard as badly as I felt I wanted it then. I don’t care for mustard as a rule, and it is very seldom that I take it at all, but I would have given worlds for it then.

I don’t know how many worlds there may be in the universe, but anyone who had brought me a spoonful of mustard at that precise moment could have had them all. I grow reckless like that when I want a thing and can’t get it.

Harris said he would have given worlds for mustard, too. It would have been a good thing for anybody who had come up to that spot with a can of mustard then; he would have been set up in worlds for the rest of his life.

I’d have been happy enough to write the first paragraph; the second would have been even better; but to think of carrying on to the third is surely a stroke of genius.

Throughout the book J has flashes of eloquence about history or sunsets or the glories of nature: at one point when he has been waxing particularly fine he stops mid-sentence and writes, ‘I beg your pardon, really. I quite forgot.’ I saw a TV dramatisation once (it turns out, when I look it up, to have starred Michael Palin) and every now and then the other two interrupted these flights with ‘Not now, J.’ It must have been like travelling with Proust, Shelley and Stephen Fry all rolled into one.

Three Men in a Boat was published when P G Wodehouse was eight years old. I like to think that he read it during his formative years.

Sydney Smith on Gout 22 April, 2015

I’ve always meant to read the letters of the Reverend Sydney Smith, because the bits of him that appear in the dictionary of quotations are so funny. I’ve finally done it and it was well worth it - not only was he funny, he was also intelligent, honest, kind and humane.

Late in life he suffered from gout and described it thus:

What a very singular disease gout is! It seems as if the stomach fell down into the feet. The smallest deviation from right diet is immediately punished by limping and lameness, and the innocent ankle and blameless instep are tortured for the vices of the nobler organs. The stomach having found this easy way of getting rid of inconveniences, becomes cruelly despotic, and punishes for the least offences. A plum, a glass of champagne, excess in joy, excess in grief, - any crime, however small, is sufficient for redness, swelling, spasms, and large shoes.

I don’t suffer from it myself and, if have of what Sydney Smith says is true, I hope I never do.

Boring for England? 19 January, 2015

I’m reading the diaries of Chips Channon, great gossip of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. His entry for 20 February 1936 begins:

Sir Arthur Colefax died today; he was a good man, talented, high-idealed, kind but boring beyond belief. Berners once said of him that he ‘had been offered £30,000 per annum to bore the channel tunnel’.

That’s close to £2 million in today’s money.

Charm Is Charm Is Charm 05 January, 2015

Someone recommended I read The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein, which is something I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. The woman who famously (and for reasons best known to herself) wrote ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’ didn’t believe in saying things only once (nor did she believe in capitalising words like French and American), but I rather liked this line about the surrealist writer René Crevel:

He had french charm, which when it is at its most charming is more charming even than american charm, charming as that can be.

She also has this vindication of the publisher/author relationship:

We do want to be printed. One writes for oneself and strangers but with no adventurous publishers how can one come in contact with those same strangers.

A good - if underpunctuated - point.

How Do We Choose Place Names? 10 December, 2014

I’ve just been talking to someone who’s writing a piece for The Economist on this theme and it made me wonder: would they have changed the name of Princes Street in Edinburgh if the referendum had gone the other way?

A Fan Letter 21 November, 2014

Back from six weeks away, I’ve received a lovely letter about 500 Words You Should Know. The writer was sad that I hadn’t included sesquipedalianism (which is in fact on my list for a sequel should the occasion arise) and suggests that the meaning of pulchritude is completely inappropriate: ‘it sounds like something you should avoid treading on’.

Thank you, Mr White of Berkhamsted.

Glorious Cheltenham 06 October, 2014

I was at the literary festival there yesterday and had such a good time. We were in the Spiegeltent - check out Cheltenham Spiegeltent if (like me two days ago) you don’t know what that is. Over 200 people drinking tea, eating cake and listening to me chattering. It was magic.

The caterers had made cakes from the book, so I talked about Chelsea Buns, Dorset Apple Cake and Whitby Goth Cake. That last one is a truly lush chocolate and beetroot concoction that I suspect is inspired by Whitby’s vampire connections (it’s where Bram Stoker was holidaying when he decided to write Dracula). But the best bit was the discussion with the audience about muffins, crumpets and pikelets. Everyone had a view on what that sort of thing was called and what is was - but it varied enormously depending on where they were from. West Midlands one thing, northeast England another, Cheltenham yet another. It was great fun - and exactly what the book is about.

I think we came to the conclusion that a crumpet was cooked in a ring, to keep the round shape, while a pikelet was similar but free-flowing. Which in Scotland would make it a bannock. And once you start talking about oatcakes, you could be there a very long time indeed.

500 Words You Should Know 23 September, 2014

Just done my first radio interview for this (see books page). Radio Wales, with the lovely (and possibly callipygous) Alan Thompson. Such a joy to be interviewed by someone who has read and apparently enjoyed the book - he even quoted an entry that wasn’t on the press release. Thank you, Alan.

A nice thought occurred to me as I was preparing for the interview. The word shibboleth comes from an ancient Biblical language and became important when one tribe had defeated another in battle and wanted to identify the runaway enemies. The defeated tribe, the Ephraimites, couldn’t pronounce the sh sound, so getting them to say shibboleth (which meant an ear of corn) was a dead giveaway - it came out sibboleth.

You can find a version of that story in the Bible and/or any decent-sized dictionary. The nice thought was that, if there were a battle between England and Wales and the Welsh won, they could root out the English survivors by asking them to say Llanelli, or Dolgellau, or almost any other place name that wasn’t Port Talbot or Newport. Most of the English would give themselves away the moment they opened their mouths. Let’s think of that as a warning not to wage war against people whose language we don’t speak.

Where Does the Time Go? 02 September, 2014

I’ve just realised I let all of August pass by without posting a blog - shame on me.


Well, it’s my birthday the day after tomorrow and I am having a party on Saturday, so lots of planning and shopping.

I’ve done a few local radio interviews for How to Greet the Queen - they were fun, particularly the one with Nikki Bedi on BBC Radio London. She has actually met the Queen, which puts her one up on me.

And I’m beginning to think about publicity for 500 Words You Should Know, which is due out at the end of September.

But none of this is an excuse for idleness. I’m sorry. Blame the summer. Blame the rain. Note to myself: must do better.

How to Greet the Queen 02 September, 2014

I did two radio interviews for this book yesterday and leapt something like 180,000 places on Amazon. The power of BBC Radios London and Solent! OK, so today I’ve slipped down about 80,000 of those places, but it was fun for a moment.

Not only that, but my appearance on one of these shows (I don’t know which) prompted this kind comment:

I bought a copy of this book recently for one of my kids and then heard the author talking about it on the radio and was so amused I felt I had to post a review. This is a very funny and also useful book that will be a godsend for any young person about to strike out into society who needs to know the do's and don'ts of life. From how to behave at work to how to deal with unwanted admirers, it's a brilliant little book that would make a fun birthday or leaving home gift.

Thank you, Mrs Smith, whoever you may be.
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