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Francis Spufford, 2 April 1987

Greyhound for Breakfast 
by James Kelman.
Secker, 230 pp., £10.95, March 1987, 0 436 23283 9
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Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer 
by Amos Tutuola.
Faber, 156 pp., £9.95, March 1987, 0 571 14714 3
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... 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. It was downright fucking nonsensical. And yet it was the sort of incident you could credit. You were sitting down in an attempt to recover a certain equilibrium ...


Francis Spufford, 4 July 1996

Why Things Bite Back: New Technology and the Revenge Effect 
by Edward Tenner.
Fourth Estate, 360 pp., £18.99, June 1996, 1 85702 560 1
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... 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 ...

Strange Fruit

Francis Spufford, 5 February 1987

The Garden of Eden 
by Ernest Hemingway.
Hamish Hamilton, 247 pp., £9.95, February 1987, 0 241 11998 7
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... 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 ...

Read my toes

Francis Spufford, 5 August 1993

The Things That Were Said of Them: Shaman Stories and Oral Histories of the Tikigaq People 
told by Asatchaq, translated by Tukummiq and Tom Lowenstein.
California, 225 pp., £18.95, February 1993, 0 520 06569 7
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Ancient Land, Sacred Whale: The Inuit Hunt and its Rituals 
by Tom Lowenstein.
Bloomsbury, 189 pp., £20, April 1993, 0 7475 1341 4
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... 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 ...

The Mantle of Jehovah

Francis Spufford, 25 June 1987

by A.S. Byatt.
Chatto, 224 pp., £10.95, April 1987, 0 7011 3169 1
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... 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 ...

A Letter to Wystan Auden, from Iceland

Francis Spufford, 21 February 1991

... 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 Thirty-Seven ...


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 ...

Operation Backfire

Francis Spufford: Britain’s space programme, 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, streetlamps, paint or wallpaper, and it showed ...

Love that Bird

Francis Spufford: Supersonic, 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 ...

Liquid Fiction

Thomas Jones: ‘The Child that Books Built’, 25 April 2002

The Child that Books Built: A Memoir of Childhood and Reading 
by Francis Spufford.
Faber, 214 pp., £12.99, April 2002, 0 571 19132 0
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A Child’s Book of True Crime: A Novel 
by Chloe Hooper.
Cape, 238 pp., £12.99, February 2002, 0 224 06237 9
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... residual still, that there might be a mystical, if misty, relationship between reading and power. Francis Spufford, a third of the way into The Child that Books Built, tells the following story: I learnt to read around my sixth birthday. I was making a dinosaur in school from crepe bandage and toilet rolls when I started to feel as if an invisible pump ...

The HPtFtU

Christopher Tayler: Francis Spufford, 6 October 2016

Golden Hill 
by Francis Spufford.
Faber, 344 pp., £16.99, May 2016, 978 0 571 22519 4
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... zone where the techniques of fiction and non-fiction intermingle outside the ambit of the novel. Francis Spufford is an almost parodically English figure whose output includes a cultural history of polar exploration (I May Be Some Time, 1996), a memoir of childhood reading (The Child that Books Built, 2002), a study of various unsung successes of ...

Monsieur Mangetout

Walter Nash, 7 December 1989

The Guinness Book of Records 1990 
edited by Donald McFarlan.
Guinness, 320 pp., £10.95, October 1989, 0 85112 341 4
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The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature 
edited by Francis Spufford.
Chatto, 313 pp., £13.95, November 1989, 0 7011 3487 9
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... the rhetorical function of lists, their place in the patterns of literary art, that is examined by Francis Spufford in The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings. Regard it, if you like, as a ripping anthology of runaway rigmaroles, from Tertullian to Cole Porter, with the added bonus of a brilliant introductory essay; or approach it more soberly, as a donnish ...

Cool It

Jenny Diski, 18 July 1996

I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination 
by Francis Spufford.
Faber, 356 pp., £15.99, June 1996, 9780571144877
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... the physical geography of the planet, and neither kind of exploration is untainted by the other. Francis Spufford describes the history of this interaction and examines its consequences. He makes the claim with his title (I May Be Some Time) and subtitle (‘Ice and the English Imagination’) that the mythic status of Captain Oates’s fruitless ...

He blinks and night is day

Adam Mars-Jones: ‘Light Perpetual’, 17 June 2021

Light Perpetual 
by Francis Spufford.
Faber, 336 pp., £16.99, February, 978 0 571 33648 7
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... of change propagating outward from the electric detonator, through the heavy mass of amatol’. Francis Spufford has written about rockets before, in his non-fiction, engaging imaginatively with the Russian space race in Red Plenty and playing the V2 campaign at least partly for comedy in Backroom Boys, where he assessed the impact on morale of the V2 ...

Talking about what it feels like is as real as it gets

Adam Phillips: Whose Church?, 24 January 2013

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense 
by Francis Spufford.
Faber, 224 pp., £12.99, September 2012, 978 0 571 22521 7
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Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England 
by Roger Scruton.
Atlantic, 199 pp., £20, November 2012, 978 1 84887 198 4
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... that accompanies the new atheism. The new atheism’s ‘smug emissaries’ – as the blurb of Francis Spufford’s engaging new book calls them, meaning above all Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins – believe in spite of all evidence that eventually the religious will see sense. And yet with their magical belief in the truth of science ...

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