Ammonites and Leaping Fish is a title as engaging as I suspect the author, Penelope Lively, to be. Born in Cairo in 1933, she was a typical upper-class English child of those times. Her father was a bigwig in the Bank of Egypt and clearly adorable. Her mother, vague and shadowy, appears to have been a cold rather than leaping fish. Both her parents consorted with a now legendary group of writers, painters and bon viveurs: notably, the fastidious poet Robin Fedden, who, with Lawrence Durrell and Bernard Spencer, edited the poetry magazine Personal Landscapes. In those days, Cairo was a cultural hotspot, even if the young Penelope remained largely unaware of its chief attraction: parties at Shepheard’s Hotel with Robin and Renée Fedden, Robert Liddell, Elizabeth David, Lawrence Durrell and others. She does, however, recall Robin turning up and teaching her mother’s cook how to make a delicious-sounding dish of spiced lamb with apricots, nuts and garlic. I can’t help wondering if her memory isn’t playing tricks on her, for Robin could scarcely boil an egg whereas Renée was easily the best cook I have ever known. Penelope, brought up on a nasty colonial version of English nursery food, rice pudding and cottage pie, found the Fedden recipe disgusting.
Benefiting from a lack of formal education, she became an observer