Gail, Hazel, Anna and Donna Coonan of Virago Modern Classics gather round the table to talk about giving new life to forgotten voices, and Helen Bourne heads for the Pyramids with a young Priscilla Napier.
Editors Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood had been friends and colleagues at John Murray, the oldest family-run publishing house in the UK, for a number of years and felt strongly committed to independent publishing and to the atmosphere that existed at John Murray’s house in 50 Albemarle Street, Mayfair ‒ where Byron had once met Walter Scott and where the ghosts of Caroline Lamb and Mary Shelley frequented the back staircase.
When the company was sold to a publishing conglomerate in 2002, they decided to leave and set up their own venture. After a year of brainstorming around the kitchen table with other colleagues, they decided in 2004 to launch a literary review, financed by subscription and aimed at literary-minded book-lovers. After much discussion it was named Slightly Foxed ‒ the term used to describe the spots often found on the paper of antiquarian books ‒ and subtitled The Real Reader’s Quarterly. For Gail and Hazel this title not only evoked the idea of books that have stood the test of time, but also described very well ‘the average person’s state of mind while scanning the shelves of the chain bookshops for something to read’ (as they wrote in SF no. 1).
‘I wish you every success with your brave venture of catering for people like myself, who after a fruitless trek around the shelves of the large bookstores, emerge wondering if teaching goldfish to stepdance would be a better option.’
Although described as a literary magazine or journal, Slightly Foxed is much more like a well-read and bookish friend. Printed on fine cream paper and beautifully illustrated, it has the look and feel of a slim paperback, while its content and presentation reflect the editors’ belief that there are many more books worth reading than those featured on the bestseller lists. The craftsmen printers Smith Settle in Yorkshire have been responsible for printing Slightly Foxed from the first issue. They also print and bind all the books subsequently produced by the company.
‘Excellent and oozing quality . . . a beautiful format and a pleasure to hold.’
Each issue of Slightly Foxed contains around 16 essays on books and authors and encompasses a wide variety of genres. Open a copy at random, turn to the bibliography three pages from the back, and there you’ll find an eclectic mix of titles, old and new ‒ novels, travel, memoirs, history, poetry, children’s books, letters, cookery, the countryside and even dictionaries and quirky instruction manuals alongside articles on subjects such as bookplates, editing, blurb-writing or tributes to favourite bookshops. This diverse range makes it the perfect companion for the curious and adventurous reader.
Authors are paid for all contributions and although most contributors are published and often well-known (P. D. James, Penelope Lively, Richard Mabey, Diana Athill, Ronald Blythe and Robert Macfarlane to name but a few) the editors also accept interesting reviews from the general public. All artwork is commissioned by the editors and some of the unique and much-admired images have been successfully reproduced on cards, tea-towels, a calendar and postcards ‒ Posy Simmonds and Quentin Blake have both produced cover images.
‘Everyone must admire the paintings on the covers but the black and white drawings inside are absolutely charming.’
Four years into their venture, Gail and Hazel were also able to realise their long-held ambition to reissue memoirs that had fallen out of print. In early 2008, in keeping with their search for forgotten voices, the company decided to launch a series of pocket-sized reprints, Slightly Foxed Editions. Also produced quarterly, these handsome little books are each published in a hand-numbered limited edition of 2,000, among them memoirs by Edward Ardizzone, Adrian Bell, James Lees-Milne, Graham Greene, Diana Holman-Hunt, Elspeth Huxley, Gavin Maxwell and Dodie Smith. A number of the books have been so successful that a paperback series was launched in 2011 and the most popular titles are now available as elegant paperbacks. A children’s series ‒ Slightly Foxed Cubs – created initially to reissue Ronald Welch’s fine series of historical adventure novels featuring the Carey family was launched in 2013.
What began with just a few hundred like-minded subscribers whose issues were dispatched from the kitchen table has since grown steadily into a well-regarded independent publishing house, a shop and a readership of over 8,000 book lovers in over 50 countries. Against all odds, Gail and Hazel and the expanding team of eleven full-time and part-time staff have come a long way since Albemarle Street, and what’s more, they’ve achieved precisely what they set out to do in the very first issue of Slightly Foxed: to ‘strike a blow for lasting quality, for the small and individual against the corporate and mass-produced’. 2014 marked the company’s tenth anniversary.