Home Life by Alice Thomas Ellis (1986)

Twelve reasons why I love Alice Thomas Ellis.

Decades ago I used to get the squeaky in from Putney Bridge to Victoria.

The trip was usually to meet, make out or make up to someone. All with varying degrees of success.

They were slam-door trains with single compartments in those days, with belching heat from under the seats seemingly regardless of season.

I’d settle in the corner with a smoke, okay, a few, and that week’s Speccie.

It’s thanks to Ms Ellis that I started reading weekly magazines from back to front.

By beginning at the end you skip the politics, pestilence, war, famine, and death at the front and get stuck straight into what’s really important in life – life itself. And time, rain, and hamsters.

Anyhow. There were a few columns at the back and my three favourites were, in ascending order, High Life by Taki, Low Life by Jeffrey Barnard, and Home Life by Alice Thomas Ellis.

The first, High Life, was okay. Perhaps a bit name-droppy and yawn-inducing.

Low Life was usually mildly amusing. I’m not entirely sure why. Seedy, a bit of a loser, often curmudgeonly and most of the time sloshed. I probably I could relate to that back then.

I remember years ago in Hong Kong our editor telling me he had met Jeffrey Barnard at The Coach and Horses in Soho.

He said that Barnard said that writing a column was the hardest thing to write in the world. Or something like that.

Which brings us to the brilliance of Alice Thomas Ellis’ Home Life.

There are four book collections of her Home Life columns that appeared in The Spectator. Volume 1 to 4. The books are hard to find – but do try.

So, twelve of the many reasons why I love Alice Thomas Ellis.

No, actually, before we get to them, let’s celebrate that ubiquitous quote of hers. If only so I don’t have to use up one of my twelve.

There is no reciprocity. Men love women. Women love children. Children love hamsters. Hamsters don’t love anyone.

Right. I’m not going to get in the way anymore.



I wondered whether to throw myself on the floor and drum my heels.


I can still get into the jodhpurs which I wore when I was fifteen but my wedding dress barely covers the front of me.


[The cat]

… then runs frenziedly down the passage like someone just realising she’s left her handbag on the tube.


[Two heifers chased by a bulldog]

They hurdled the fence like fillies… there followed a mauvais quart d’heure with me attempting to murder the dog at the same time as rounding up the cows.


I have yet to meet a writer who wouldn’t rather peel a banana than apply himself to the pen. I believe if I were locked in a windowless room with a deadline I would spend the time trying to tunnel out rather than get on with it.


…I never learned to ride a bicycle, considering it undignified…


…babies… packed in little pushchairs with transparent envelopes when it rains, so they look like frozen chickens.


I’m rapidly coming round to the view that all – all – is illusion and our world is most probably nothing but a bit of grit in the eye of some vast and indifferent being. I expect I’ll feel better when it stops raining.


Optimism is the last resort of those in deep despair.


I’m suffering from one of those periodic bouts of tedium vitae.


[Jumping on cardboard]

… I find it somehow unseemly and cannot bring myself to do likewise.


Time, while not precisely standing still, does tend to lounge around a bit here.

There you go.

If you’re lucky enough to find the books online, it can be tricky telling what order they go in as the first and second books don’t have volume numbers on their dust jackets. Hope this helps:

Volume 1 (1986) – hardback had sketch of two cats on dusk jacket (as above). ISBN 0 7156 2093 2.

Volume 2 (1987) – hardback was called More Home Life [my underlining], with a sketch of Ellis writing on dust jacket. ISBN 0 7156 2188 2.

Volume 3 (1988) – hardback, helpfully marked ‘Three’, has a sketch of a cottage on dust jacket. ISBN 0 7156 2270 6.

Volume 4 (1989) – hardback, helpfully marked ‘Four’, has a vase of flowers and a bill final notice on dust jacket. ISBN 0 7156 2297 8.

Hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

Thanks for being here.

Follow my Book Bore blog on style in writing:

With acknowledgement to The Spectator and publishers Duckworth.

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff (1989)

I often play with myself on starting a book a game where I spot the exact point the author hooks me in and I know I’m going to read on.

Actually, if I’ve acquired the book myself the chances are I’ll be reading on anyways, but it’s fun to see where that point is as if I was coming to the book cold.

I often think of the author walking ahead of the reader on the start of the path that is their story. Suddenly they pause, turn, and hold out their hand to the reader. If they hook the reader with what they’re saying, the reader takes their hand and the author takes them on a journey.

That’s the point I love spotting.

That’s the point I often say out loud, “I’m in.”

This memoir’s got a good I’m in moment.

Let’s watch Wolff setting the scene from the first line.

Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.

So. What we got here. They’re not made of money if they’ve a crap car that keeps boiling over. They’re in the middle of nowhere, which can be a bit disconcerting. They might be feeling a bit small and insignificant surrounded by ginormous mountains.

Wolff ratchets up all these elements in the next few lines. The following three sentences emphasise mother and son’s smallness and adds danger.

While we were waiting for it to cool we heard, from somewhere above us, the bawling on an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came round the corner and shot past us into the next curb, it’s trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”

On the road again, they come across the point where the truck went over the edge and fell hundreds of feet to the river below, where it lay on its back among boulders. It looked pitifully small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out in the wind… My mother put her arm round my shoulder.

See Wolff still niggling with that sense of scale and danger? Big truck made small, exposed on its back, dead. This is serious shit. It’s a big wild world out there.

For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs.

I’m in.

Thanks for being here.

Buy This Boy’s Life (free delivery, cardboard wrapping)

Follow my Book Bore blog on style in writing:

Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson (1964)

Now this man can write dialogue. The story’s about a small-town – population 1280 – psycho sheriff. And it’s a hoot.

Here’s a taster. Clock the exasperation.

She took a long, shuddery heave. Then she came over to the lounge and stood over me. ‘You you you son-of-a-bitch’ she said. ‘You you you rotten stinking bastard. You – you gaddamned whoremongering, double-crossing, low-down, worthless, no-good, mean, hateful, two-timing onery -‘

‘Now, god-dang it, Rose,’ I said. ‘Danged if it don’t almost sound as if you was mad at me.’

‘Mad!’ she yelled. ‘I’ll show you how mad I am! I’ll -‘

Isn’t it lovely. I fine specimen of a compelling tête-à-tête.

If you you you know what onery is, please let me know. I think I might have one on my bottom.

Thanks for being here.

Buy Pop. 1280 (free delivery, cardboard wrapping)

Follow my Book Bore blog on style in writing:

Heartburn by Nora Ephron (1983)

Love this lady and this funny book.

It’s Ephron’s story of finding out her husband is cheating on her while she’s pregnant. No, seriously, it really is very funny – Ephron has an amazing ability to laugh at herself and her life.

Love her mum Phoebe, too.

Famously, mum used to say to daughter Everything is copy. She was right: just say what happened.

Here’s a fine example.

[It’s just before Christmas. Their New York apartment has been ‘burglarized’ and the police arrive. Nora’s recounting…]

Continue reading Heartburn by Nora Ephron (1983)

Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1606)

Your favourite bit, aside from unsex me here and Show his eyes and grieve his heart; come like shadows so depart?

Mine’s got to be Macbeth’s glum it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Which reminds me, I must get on with my memoirs.

But Hold enough! There is a hidden not often referred to gem that haunts. Can’t really call it a ‘favourite bit’ as it’s pretty grim. Powerful in its wrenching.

Continue reading Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1606)

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare (1623)

Your favourite bit, apart from A sad tale’s best for winter and she is the queen of curds and cream?

Mine’s got to be either let’s be red with mirth or If I might die within this hour, I have lived to die when I desire.

But for now let’s to a favourite theme of Willy’s showing angry middle-aged men as complete oafs. Sit back and listen to one proving it again and again.

Continue reading The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare (1623)