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Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built is out from Faber. He is working on a book about technology in Britain since the 1970s.

Supersonic

Francis Spufford, 6 June 2002

August 1974. Compared to the Cortinas and Maxis in the carpark, the prototype Concorde taxiing onto the runway at RAF Fairford looked astonishingly modern: but then, it always would. For the next quarter of a century, it would always be an object that stood out from its context, stylistically disconnected from the machines people build for more everyday tasks. Even now, when the carparks at...

Britain’s space programme

Francis Spufford, 28 October 1999

In November 1944 a group of men met in a London pub. In this fifth year of the war, the capital was dingy, dog-eared, clapped-out, frankly grimy. Though Britain had not shaken off its usual inefficiencies at mass production, it had converted its economy to the needs of the war more completely than any other combatant nation. For five years there had been no new prams, trams, lawnmowers,...

Revenge!

Francis Spufford, 4 July 1996

This book is presented as a pessimist’s primer, full of circumstantial evidence for the vanity of human wishes. It offers a portfolio of sharp blows to the back of the head, as good intentions boomerang. Dieting makes you fatter. Green washing-powder only replaces the algal blooms in the Adriatic Sea with mats of floating slime. But Edward Tenner’s book is dedicated, half-successfully, to subtler propositions about the contrariness of stuff. His argument, you could say, turns on the implicit difference between Sod’s Law (everything goes wrong) and Murphy’s Law (if something can go wrong, it will). While the first is vacuous – or a matter of the psychology which ensures we remember the times things go wrong and forget the times they don’t – the second is an engineer’s motto about the scope we allow to disaster. After a record-breaking run on a rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base in the Forties, Captain Edward Murphy Jr discovered that all the recording instruments had been mounted backwards. The axiom he put in joke form had less to do with the human error involved than with the way the mechanical system had tolerated the error. The design of the gauges permitted them to be fitted wrong; the complexity of the system prevented the mistake from becoming apparent until results failed to appear. Why Things Bite Back, likewise, directs its attention towards the behaviour of systems, and our relationship with the particularly susceptible kind described as ‘tightly-coupled’, where the components act jostlingly on each other. It is about managing the unmanageable; it seeks intelligent responses to a world of malfunctioning cash dispensers.’

Read my toes

Francis Spufford, 5 August 1993

Seventeenth-century books of Arctic travels contained occasional reports of a kingdom in the far north of the Americas called Estoty: just out of reach over the icy horizon with its wealth, its monarch, its city of copper-roofed houses. Eventually the chimera-collecting eye of Vladimir Nabokov fell on Estoty. The horribly spry cast of Ada live in a Russo-American arcadia of the same name – a suitable metamorphosis of one kind of impossibility into another, perhaps. But the invention of Estoty also testifies to an aspect of European disappointment with the New World.

for the maker of ceramic pots

I

Dear Wystan Auden, as I lay last night     Unsleeping on a hard Youth Hostel bed, The windows pearly with the pale twilight     That glows on constantly up here instead     Of proper dark, a thought traversed my head: How fine if I could summon down from heaven The flax-haired you of Nineteen...

The Mantle of Jehovah

Francis Spufford, 25 June 1987

To keep a single vision single, or perhaps to conserve their own energy, writers who deal in strong feelings and violent flavours most often choose narrow canvases. Not, however, A.S. Byatt. Her writing has been synoptically intense. It has been so, anomalously, in a genre (the English social novel) which makes comparisons with other violently-flavoured writers, outside the genre, seem silly. You could, of course, draw a contrast simply in terms of range of Bad Moments covered: Norman Mailer has preferred to steer clear of the peculiar pains of childbirth, and Andrea Dworkin has chosen not to dwell on the distinctive horror an uneasy Christmas dinner can become, while Byatt can and has handled both as elements in her continuing series of novels.

Dialects

Francis Spufford, 2 April 1987

There is a thing – call it the bastard high style – which has preoccupied some writers ever since Villon found a fruitful union in the marriage of gutter argot and the language of the Schools. In English, in this century, it has mostly been used by Irish writers: by Joyce, with Vico and scatology, by Beckett, with velleity and bananas, and by Flann O’Brien, one paragraph of whose At-Swim-Two-Birds includes both an argumentum on Rousseau and the sudden eructation of ‘buff-coloured puke’. Now there is a new practitioner, working with a different vernacular and a different elevated diction. The first of the 47 fictions in James Kelman’s Greyhound for Breakfast finds old Francis on a park bench in Glasgow, menaced by vaguely circling winos trying to cadge a cigarette.’

Strange Fruit

Francis Spufford, 5 February 1987

Who would have suspected Hemingway’s resources as a food writer? Not me, at any rate. The Garden of Eden is studded with provincial delicacies Elizabeth David would be proud of (‘jamon serrano, a smoky, hard-cured ham from pigs that fed on acorns’) and dramatic narratives of eating and drinking that might please M.F.K. Fisher. The book is a sort of domestic novel, a portrait of amour fou and its aftermath in which Hemingway’s attention turns in directions many of which are as unexpected as the excursions into gastronomy, and which provide consistently interesting, if sometimes strained reading. What makes Hemingway good is the quality of thinking behind his simplicities of action and dialogue; what makes him bad is where the thinking always seems to stop. Since this is the last novel we’ll have from him, it would be nice to report that he’d breached the barriers of his sexual politics. That isn’t true; probably it could not be true. The Garden of Eden can be read as a narrow sexual fable of the most embarrassing kind, but it has the advantage of arriving at what is most obnoxious in Hemingway, not taking it as a point of departure.

Story: ‘Melchior’

Francis Spufford, 3 May 1984

In early spring of 1904 the blue limousine draws up beneath the baroque convent of Melk. There is snow on the ground; it is a crisp, bright day; the chauffeur drops one of the patented thermos-flasks as he carries the picnic up the hill in the wake of the family and it breaks, staining the snow a rich vegetable mulled-wine red. The family ensconce themselves in rugs and overcoats on the snow just below the gentle crest of the hill which hides the yellow walls of the convent from sight. Uncle Joseph trots to this crest for a moment to admire the view and architecture, before returning to where they have already laid out the food – all hot, all sensible – and started to chatter. Back at the car the chauffeur is leaning against the engine, which he has swathed in an enormous horse-blanket, just in case, and has lit a popular brand of cigarette, which he smokes hands deep in pockets. The well-wrapped-up four-year-old has run several times around the party, almost knocking over the soup, and now makes for the pinewood which climbs the valley to the left of the picnic. On the other side of the valley the ice-floes move slowly down the Danube; the family are glad that they can enjoy their picnic and be gone, insulated from the ground by several layers of wool, fur and leather, for the nights here are very, very cold, and there are still unexterminated wolves unconscious of the etiquette of picnics. The talk turns to painting. Aunt Paula, who is sometimes a watercolourist, explains principles of composition, while Uncle Joseph promises to visit some of the galleries in Vienna the others recommend to him. Meanwhile the four-year-old has been brought back from the pinewood by his nurse. He is clutching three finely-elongated pine-cones, which he gives, solemnly, to his mother. Thank you, pigling, she says. Perhaps he is a truffle-hunting pigling, offers Aunt Paula. No, says the child’s father, punning on the place-name: he is Melchior, bringer of gifts.–

Letter

Exterminate!

20 May 2015

Carlos Fraenkel quotes Luke 19.27 as his proof text for Jesus’s exterminating tendencies (LRB, 21 May). But that verse is part of a parable. Jesus said, ‘As for my enemies who don’t want me as their king, bring them here and slaughter them before me’ only in the sense that he told a story in which a character said it. The three-cornered relations of predecessor-hood and successor-hood...

Francis Spufford

Christopher Tayler, 5 October 2016

Britain​ is good at producing historians, biographers, nature and travel writers and so on, but thanks, perhaps, to a not very extensive magazine infrastructure, powerful marketing departments...

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Whose Church?

Adam Phillips, 24 January 2013

No one can write about religion now without having in mind the new mockery that accompanies the new atheism. The new atheism’s ‘smug emissaries’ – as the blurb of Francis...

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The 1950s’ Soviet Dream

J. Hoberman, 6 January 2011

‘The Russians have everything in name, and nothing in reality,’ the Marquis de Custine observed in 1839, comparing the empire to a blank book with a magnificent table of contents....

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Francis Spufford

Thomas Jones, 25 April 2002

In my nursery school nativity play, the Christmas before I turned five, I was cast as the narrator. My role involved sitting on a set of steps to one side of the stage in Silchester village hall,...

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Cool It

Jenny Diski, 18 July 1996

Snow is cold. Some more information I am prepared to accept as plain fact: near 90° South if you take your gloves off for more than a few moments, your fingers die; at its edge, the 5.5...

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Monsieur Mangetout

Walter Nash, 7 December 1989

The other Sunday, as I was taking my weekly televisual fix of gridiron football – not so much an athletic spectacle as an entrancing reconstruction of the wars of Pompey the Great – I...

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