I have of late added to my list of peculiarities the habit of not sleeping very well. Possibly I’m responding to your hypothetical Vicar beckoning to come help bring order to the vestry or to ring the changes, and thus is kept awake by my lapsed conscience.

Speaking of change ringing: I do agree that The nine tailors ranks among the finest of new year tales. I met a man on a river boat once (yes, once upon a time I did those kinds of things. I didn’t stoop to solving crime, however) who told me all about the art and science of ringing the changes. The mathematics involved, and how it’s distinct from campanology “in that no attempt is made to produce a conventional melody”. Naturally, he told me, to truly appreciate Sayer’s book, one need to have experienced change ringing first hand. I declined the offer, as well as all subsequent offers of creating sounds by pulling on things. I pointed out that I was probably distinct from other girls he may have met in that In my case, no attempt should be made to produce the conventional malady.

Which, come to think of it, doesn’t quite make sense but it had the same intended devastating effect as a proper witticism would have. If challenged I would have (I really would, that’s the kind of girl I was) hidden behind Wilde’s dictum: to be intelligible is to be found out. (This being the most flagrant example of Lady Fandemere’s Wind, I think).

Where was I? Right. Not sleeping very well. The upside of this is that I’ve opened up a new time-slot for reading. I was taught, back when it was a word one could use without fear of ridicule, to compartmentalize. This I took to mean that it was okay, and not thoroughly confusing, to read any number of books at the same time, as long as you allotted a specific time to each. One book in the morning, one over lunch, one during the afternoon, one in bed and, the new one, one while up because sleeping has ceased to be an option.

The book that occupies this slot is “At Large and At Small” by the wonderful stylist ms Anne Fadiman. Yes I know she’s married but, and this may be very unenlightened by me, she writes like a spinster. This impression is probably due to her kind of essayist being all but extinct, and if she was a contemporary to her style, it’s unlikely that she would have been allowed to publish if married. The book was a gift from someone very dear to me, and I must remember to write her a letter to express my gratitude soon. Only I’m afraid of admitting that it took me this long to get around to reading it.

While cleaning the other day, I found a copy of the New York Review of Books, yellowed and brittle by the passing of some ten years, and in it a review of Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the music of time”. There I found two passages that I want you to read, equipping you, as it were, for the inevitable holiday encounters.

“Charles uses gouache now,” said mrs Foxe, speaking with that bright firmness of manner people apply especially to close relations attempting to recover from more or less disastrous mismanagement of their lives.


He also lacked that subjective, ruthless love of presiding over other people’s affairs which often makes basically heartless people adept at offering effective consolation.

Writing like this, the elegant and comic depth of social perception expressed, makes me wonder why we spend time on contemporary fiction when clearly, there’s better things to do with our time.


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