A subscription to Slightly Foxed magazine or our limited edition books would make an ideal present for those who love to read. | Browse and buy gift subscriptions | From £38
A subscription to Slightly Foxed magazine or our limited edition books would make an ideal present for those who love to read. | Browse and buy gift subscriptions | From £38
Greetings from Hoxton Square where we’re happily penning gift messages, winding ribbons, wrestling with tape guns and hauling post bags up and down the stairs to get all of your delicious (and most welcome) gift orders out over the next few weeks. There’s still plenty of time to order subscriptions, books and goods in time for Christmas. We ship our wares all around the world.
Go forth, dear booklovers, and browse our online Readers’ Catalogue, where you’ll find our cloth-bound limited-edition hardbacks, our popular paperbacks and Plain Editions, a small collection of literary goods and our pick of titles from other publishers’ bookshelves. We do hope that it provides some interesting and unusual present solutions. Or perhaps you may be tempted to stock up on some reading for yourself.
I think it was my old friend the Evening Standard columnist Angus McGill who recommended Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly’s war diaries: Angus would have loved her unpretentious skill at conjuring up another place, another time. Published in 1994, they have the enthralling quality that Dostoevsky called ‘living life’, oﬀering you a front-row seat at the great unfolding historical drama of the Second World War. They were written on the hoof, in moments snatched at the end of long, exhausting working days when letter- writing had also to be ﬁtted in. Fifty years later she prepared them for publication and was astonished by their success.
Bound in coloured cloth, with printed endpapers and original illustrations, the Foxed Cubs make ideal presents, as stand-alone titles, or in sets. Whether you wish to venture back to Roman Britain with Rosemary Sutcliff, escape to the wild with ‘BB’, join up the dots of history with Ronald Welch, or begin to build a library for a young booklover by picking a few titles by each author (or collecting the full set at once) we have books, bundles and offers to satisfy all readers and occasions.
The white van was seen one morning to draw up in the little car park overlooking Clogher beach, a stormy inlet of the Dingle peninsula in south-west Ireland. Four men in black suits climbed out, edged down the slippery concrete steps and lined up on the beach. Then, as if responding to an invisible signal, they raised their arms in salute over the ocean, and shouted into the wind in a strange tongue.
Bleak House Books in San Po Kong, Kowloon, is one of the furthermost bookshops from our corner of Hoxton Square and we were thrilled when co-founder Albert Wan and his team of booksellers decided to give Slightly Foxed a try shortly after they opened in 2017. We’ve been shipping our wares across the seas ever since, and still delight in the fact that booklovers of Hong Kong can browse our magazine and books in person. We chatted to Albert about life in the bookshop, his favourite authors and the positive effects of providing good reading. And, to finish, there’s a round-up of recommendations from his fellow booksellers.
Abbey was born in 1927 on a family farm in the mountains of Appalachia, in western Pennsylvania, but before he was 20 he had travelled to the American south-west and fallen in love with the ‘implacable indifference’ of the red rock desert and labyrinthine canyons of ‘the four corners’, the point at which Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado converge. It would forever speak to his heart. By the 1950s he was working as a park ranger, and in 1956 he began two seasons at the Arches National Monument in south-east Utah, now a national park. He was home. It was a time of ‘pure, smug, animal satisfaction’. He began to keep a journal that would later blossom into an elegiac memoir: Desert Solitaire (1968).
Years ago, travelling in Sri Lanka, I gave my copy of Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge (1942), long out of print, to someone who had helped me, and immediately regretted it – where would I find another? Mary Lavin, once hugely admired and honoured, had been forgotten, as had almost all her work.
As yet another fearless female reporter in a flak jacket flashes on to our television screens to tell us in rapid bursts how British troops came under fire that day, I often think of the handful of women eighty or so years earlier who fought for the privilege of being in a war zone and communicating that horror to those at home.
John Reed is best known for Ten Days that Shook the World (1917), his classic account of the Bolshevik revolution. But where Ten Days rata-tat-tats like a telegram tapped out under gunfire, Insurgent Mexico slaps across a literary canvas lavish swathes of colour and furious heat and open-hearted characters and swirls them around till you can taste the dust, feel the sweat dribbling down your back and find yourself casting round for your horse, your woman and your gun.
If a case could be made that writers look like their work, then Pauline Smith would be a good example. In her girlhood and youth there was about her a refinement of feature that recalls, at a stretch, the young Audrey Hepburn. And as anyone familiar with her writing will attest, there is about Smith’s subject-matter and her use of language the hallmark of a particularly refined sensibility.
She was reading and I asked her what she was doing. After a moment’s hesitation she asked if I would like to hear the story. Of course I said yes, so she turned back to the first page and began.
Up the stairs past the coloured 1850s lithographs of British sportsmen pig-sticking in India; into the room with the campaign chest and Grandfather’s medals on top, their clasps with names like Waziristan and Chitral, and the picture of the General, his half-brother, a Mutiny hero who eventually expired of apoplexy on the parade ground at Poona. There was no escaping the Raj – witness the fact that my first job when I joined John Murray in 1972 was to superintend an update of their Handbook to India.
My father looked up from his Daily Express and said to my mother, ‘Dylan Thomas is dead.’ Why he announced this and why I took any notice and remember it now, I don’t know. I was only 8 and the name meant nothing to me. I don’t believe my father read any poetry, but back in 1953 Dylan Thomas was about as famous as a contemporary poet could be in the twentieth century.
When André Gide was asked to name his favourite novel, he dithered over the merits of Stendhal’s works before plumping for The Charterhouse of Parma. Giuseppe di Lampedusa also hesitated, inclining towards Scarlet and Black before deciding that The Charterhouse was ‘the summit of all world fiction’. As a youth, I was puzzled by these judgements but relieved later to read Lampedusa’s view that ‘the summit’ had been ‘written by an old man for old people’ and that one had ‘to be over forty before one [could] understand it’.
You must have had the experience of finding yourself so absorbed by the world conjured up in a book that you read it ever more slowly – battling the urgent desire to find out what happens next – because you can’t bear to get to the end. For me The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge is such a book. She has the gift of pulling you effortlessly into the world she has created, and leaving you bereft as well as satisfied when you arrive at the last page.
The most unorthodox branch of the American Legion, the United States’s organization of war veterans, is ‘China Post One, Shanghai – Soldiers of Fortune in Exile’. Founded in 1919, it originally met in the American Club in Shanghai until war and revolution chased it out. Today it is the only American Legion post in exile and nominally headquartered in a Communist country. The membership roster, made up of adventurers, mercenaries, CIA-paramilitary types, spooks, old China hands, and a curious mélange of pilots, includes legendary figures from the Far East.
Literary posterity is a fragile, arbitrary affair. Fashions and tastes change; the Zeitgeist moves on. For most writers little more than obscurity beckons; even for those acclaimed within their own lifetimes, temporarily sticking their heads above the parapet, oblivion is still the most natural of destinies. Only the truly, profoundly, universal survive.
Being a lover of books and beautiful things, my teenage daughter usually discovers a Persephone paperback in the contents of her Christmas stocking. Last year, it was Little Boy Lost, by Marghanita Laski. She read it almost immediately and then, appraising it and me with shrewd enthusiasm, declared: ‘This is a very good book and you’ll love it.’ She was right on both counts.
‘Where is Patrick Spotter?’ The Japanese customer looked somewhat annoyed. She had been told that the staff of Heffers Children’s Bookshop in Cambridge were so knowledgeable that they could help with tracking down any book, even if the visitor didn’t know the title or author. We looked at each other in dismay. Was this an author we didn’t know? Then our manager appeared and courteously offered to take the lady round the shop: the first shelf they reached was Young Classics. ‘There!’ shouted the Japanese lady triumphantly. ‘Oh, Beatrix Potter!’ we smiled. She smiled; our reputation was intact and calm returned.
It is over fifty years since the death of Nevil Shute, who from 1940 to 1960 was probably the best-selling novelist in Britain. You could hardly not read Shute in those days. I devoured him voraciously (I am 68), as did my brother, friends, mother, uncles and aunts. Yet who under the age of 60 remembers him now? If he survives at all it is through reprints on the shelves of charity shops and memories of old black-and-white films culled from his best-known books: No Highway, A Town Like Alice, On the Beach.
Why wasn’t Charles Dickens knighted, assuming he wasn’t offered the honour and declined it, as some authorities believe? Would it have been because he spilled so much ink lambasting the establishment? I think not. He was too colossal a figure for that to be an obstacle, even in Victorian England. Was it – as you will discover if you read Claire Tomalin’s masterly biography The Invisible Woman – because he kept a mistress, the actress Ellen (Nelly) Ternan? Highly unlikely, since, as you will also discover, he handled that business with the combination of psychotic secretiveness and extreme canniness that one would expect from such a man.
One of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, ‘My Son’s Wife’, features a high-minded young aesthete named Midmore, who spends his days pondering the improvement of society. Midmore inherits a country estate from a widowed aunt, Mrs Werf, and reluctantly pays it a visit. Thumbing through the books in the library, he suddenly realizes with horror what the late Colonel Werf ’s mind must have been in its prime: for the colonel, like Kipling, was an enthusiastic reader of Surtees, the mid-Victorian hunting novelist, and Midmore is exposed to an attitude to life – sceptical, brisk, tough-minded and unsentimental – diametrically opposed to his own. ‘It was a foul world into which he peeped for the first time,’ Kipling tells us, ‘a heavy-eating, hard-drinking hell of horse-copers, swindlers, match-making mothers, economically dependent virgins selling themselves blushingly for cash and lands, Jews, tradesmen and an ill-considered spawn of Dickens and horsedung characters.’ Unable to put it down Midmore reels off to bed clutching a copy of Handley Cross, one of Surtees’s milder creations.
The dog pricked up his ears, which was surprising because so far he hadn’t seemed all that bright. Vanya and I turned to look. At the edge of the clearing a man in a white woollen suit was just visible against the snow, returning our stares and clasping a rifle. For half a minute or so nobody moved or spoke. Vanya’s gun was out of reach, leaning against a tree stump. All around us the forest gaped. Apart from the crackle of twigs we were burning to ward off frostbite, silence reigned – and all waited to see if there would be blood.
I have no idea on what my father based this and I’m sure he was genuinely trying to console, but for years afterwards I avoided novels that mixed politics and facts, particularly historical novels. Writers should just make it up, I thought. Feelings were what counted: feelings, ideas, characters and story. But then, thankfully, I was given Rose Tremain’s best-selling and Booker short-listed novel Restoration, and, plunging in against my better judgement, was immediately hooked.
It was the second-hand book-dealer Malcolm Applin, whose catalogue I find always opens doors and windows, who first introduced me to the Cockney bookseller and writer Fred Bason. Fred had been encouraged to keep a diary by James Agate who told him, ‘Keep a diary and one day it will keep you.’ It was, however, his friend and mentor, Arnold Bennett, who gave him the most valuable advice when he told the young Fred, ‘Talk it, then write it. If you say “ain’t” or “Cor, luv a duck!” then put it down just as you do in ordinary conversation. And that will be your style.’
Before this book-signing craze gets completely out of hand, we must establish some rules. After all, what may be considered correct in Waterstone’s could be frowned upon in Hatchards and be beyond the pale in Hay-on-Wye. Is it ever acceptable to ask an author to sign another author’s book? Fountain pen or ballpoint? What if the author mis-spells the recipient’s name? These are some of the questions I intend to tackle.
Anne Scott-James was one of the ‘First Ladies’ of Fleet Street, though she preferred the title ‘one of the first career girls’. Her novel In the Mink, published in 1952, is a thinly disguised portrait of her pre-war and post-war years as a journalist. Richard Boston, writing her obituary in 2009, remarked of it disapprovingly that ‘her characters are uniformly lifeless. Whatever value it may have for the fashion historian, it is scarcely readable as a novel.’ Later on he adds that she had once not only fused, but actually melted his coffee-maker. Clearly this still rankled.
Think of an Edward Hopper picture, Main Street, Anywheresville, USA, a warm summer’s evening. Geometric buildings, neat and desolate. Give them names: Northfork Drug; The Hub Men’s Clothing; First Clark National Bank; Dr J. P. Wade, Physician, Walk In. Remove Hopper’s colours, see it in black-and-white. In an open window a table-lamp illumines a man’s face. He’s the only human visible. The scene is empty, and you might be hearing utter silence if it weren’t for a huge steam locomotive dragging a freight train down the track that runs along the middle of the street. The locomotive’s as tall as a house, its headlight and its white smoke piercing the dark. No engineer, no fireman visible. A ghost train driving itself.
‘I like these old travellers,’ wrote Norman Douglas, ‘not so much for what they actually say, as for their implicit outlook on life.’ The comment comes apropos his early eighteenth-century predecessor in southern Italy, the ‘loquacious . . . restless’ Pacicchelli. Nearly a century on from the first publication of Old Calabria (1915), the equally loquacious and restless Douglas has himself become something of an old traveller.
Over twenty years ago, I started a regular weekly poker game with a group of friends who had all recently gravitated to London. We had been inspired to do this by Anthony Holden’s beguiling description of the ‘Tuesday Night Game’ in his excellent book Big Deal. Holden – then probably better known for his biographies of Laurence Olivier, the Prince of Wales and the Queen Mother – describes the year he spent trying to make his way as an amateur in the world of professional poker, taking in a range of exotic locations from Morocco to Las Vegas and culminating in a creditable but ultimately failed attempt at the 1988 World Series of Poker. To men in their early twenties, with the responsibilities of family and the joys of a mortgage still ahead of them, it appeared an impossibly romantic lifestyle, and in our small way we were determined to capture some of it.
It isn’t every day that I eat pizza with a Nobel laureate. The experience was a fringe benefit of an undergraduate studentship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a cluster of biological research labs perched incongruously on the coast of Long Island, New York. The institute has played host to an impressive eight Nobel laureates in the past half-century, the most famous being James Watson, who together with Francis Crick solved the structure of DNA and set molecular biology in motion. Cold Spring Harbor is, in short, a heady place for a young scientist.
It is sobering to think how literary fashions change. Deciding to read the whole oeuvre of Alice Thomas Ellis once more, I went to the excellent Camilla’s Bookshop in Eastbourne, where not a single copy was to be found, and where the assistant asked me ‘Who was she? What did she write?’ Other second-hand bookshops proving equally fruitless, I went to the library, where the lady at the desk looked her up on the computer. ‘These are old books,’ she said. Long banished from the open shelves, the novels I requested would have to come all the way from Shoreham. A sad fate for an author who was fashionable not so very long ago. But Anna (as everyone called her) would not have minded: she was sharply aware of death throughout her life, and a period of posthumous literary quiescence would have pleased her; she, more than most authors of her time, knew in the midst of literary celebrity, that all flesh is grass.
Can you resist a Victorian novel featuring a blind heroine and identical twins, rivals for her love – one of whom turns dark blue in the course of the novel? If not, read no further, but rush off and buy Poor Miss Finch. For readers who have not yet discovered this novel, I shall try not to give too much away. Those of us who love Victorian fiction do so because it panders to our narrative greed. Résumés spoil the appetite.
An upstairs room in a north London public library. I was teaching ‘Introduction to Contemporary Poetry’ to a class of twelve adults, and we’d been going for about twenty minutes. They were all new to poetry, no one wanted to talk, and the atmosphere was sticky. I thumbed Staying Alive – real poems for unreal times, the anthology I use as a set text, and it fell open at Seamus Heaney’s ‘Postscript’. I asked if anyone would like to read it aloud. Doreen mustered her confidence, cleared her throat, and kindly volunteered.
Humour is a funny thing. Something which causes a seizure in one person will leave another inexplicably stony-faced. However, there is a small coterie for whom a certain type of humour resonates. Should you, in daylight, be passing Jarndyce Antiquarian Booksellers in Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, you will often find two 9-year-old boys outside, cunningly disguised as a grey haired, middle-aged woman in sensible shoes (the author of this piece) and a balding, bespectacled gentleman (her solicitor). These two often attract the attention of bemused tourists on the way to the British Museum, as they scream with laughter at the titles of the books in the left-hand window of said shop.
It is received opinion among publishers that wine books don’t sell. Don’t even try to suggest a book with the word wine in the title to a publisher – he will recoil as if from a corked claret (not something that would happen nowadays as most publishing lunches are dry). The Faber wine list is no more and the once mighty Mitchell Beazley list is a shadow of its former self.
Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893–1957) had much the same realizations, I suspect. The only child of a clergyman, she was brought up in Oxford and Cambridge, went to boarding-school and was one of the first generation of women to be granted actual degrees, when she took a First in modern languages at Somerville College in 1915. There followed stints in publishing and advertising, during which she wrote her first murder mystery, Whose Body? (1923). More followed, to popular acclaim, until in 1937 she published Busman’s Honeymoon as both a novel and a play and rang down the curtain on Lord Peter, leaving him ensconced in wedded bliss.
Publishing can be a dangerous game. On my shelves I keep, as a warning to myself, a non-fiction book – perhaps the only surviving copy – which was written by a respected author, published by a major London house, and ran into awful trouble before it reached the bookshops. (Mine was a review copy, but sending a book out for review amounts to publishing it.) It was about Cold War spies and spying. It named an eminent scientist, said he was dead, and identified him as a spy and a traitor. Two errors there: first, he was very much alive, and second, he was neither a spy nor a traitor. Result: the entire print run was pulped, and undisclosed damages were paid.
In July 1967 the schoolmaster and part-time novelist J. L. Carr took two years’ leave of absence to see if he could make a living as a publisher of illustrated maps and booklets of poetry. Both were unusual: the maps featured small, annotated drawings of people, buildings, flowers, animals and recipes associated with places in the old English counties and were meant for framing and to stimulate discussion, while the works of British poets were presented in 16-page booklets, as Carr believed that people could only absorb a few poems at a time.
Winifred Holtby wrote South Riding, a grand sweep of 1930s life in Yorkshire’s sea-facing flatlands, quite literally against a deadline. She completed the novel only weeks before her death, and the manuscript was seen through the press by her lifelong friend Vera Brittain. The book was an instant success, and has never been out of print.
On 3 January 1923 a rackety Czech ex-Communist, ex-anarchist, exeditor, ex-soldier named Jaroslav Hašek died in straitened circumstances in the village of Lipnice, east of Prague. He was not yet 40 and did not live to finish the book he was writing. By that time, however, The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War was already hundreds of thousands of words long and gave every appearance of going on indefinitely. Three volumes and a part of a fourth were complete; the hero, the ‘certified imbecile’ Josef Švejk, after a long and irregular journey east from Prague as a soldier in the 91st Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, was about to stumble into the slaughterhouse of the Galician front.
Forty or so years ago, Harrods was still a place of considerable eccentricity. The Lending Library, with its attached Secondhand Book Department, hardly fitted with the high mark-up merchandise in the rest of this gargantuan store. However, the Harrods mantra that it could supply anything from a pin to an elephant allowed for the existence of the Library until its demise, in much reduced form, in 1989.
When Charles Causley’s first collection of poems came out in 1951 – Farewell, Aggie Weston, the first in Eric Marx’s elegant series of ‘Poems in Pamphlet’ from the Hand and Flower Press – a fellow teacher at the ‘chalk Siberia’ in which he earned his living, picked it up and remarked dismissively, ‘Good Lord – is this the best thing you can do with your spare time?’ ‘What he didn’t know’, said Causley later, ‘was that it was the teaching I did in my spare time.’
This is Daphne Manners, the young woman who comes out to India in 1942 as a VAD nurse and falls in love with Hari Kumar, an Indian journalist educated at an English public school, brought up from babyhood to be entirely English, and finding himself, on his enforced return, belonging nowhere. Their doomed and tragic love affair, to which all else returns, over and over again, is at the heart of Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet, though its drama is played out only in Volume One, The Jewel in the Crown (1966).
It was called the Dive during the war and it drew servicemen and women from across Yorkshire and the north who enjoyed the hubbub, the smoke and beer, and the temporary sense of freedom and escape that the bar provided. It was said that if you wanted to know where the RAF’s next raid would be, Bettys Bar – the Dive – was the place to be. Now Bettys is anything but a dive: elegant, timeless and comforting. Its waitresses are similarly fragrant, their white blouses and broderie anglaise aprons ironed with military precision. Bettys’ ground-floor restaurant is bright with mirrors, reflecting the line of delicate teapots on a high shelf, the silver of cake-stands and the narrow streets of York.
Try it yourself. Assemble a handful of chaps of pensionable age – because these will be men whose voices were wavering between treble and tenor in the 1950s – and ask them if they remember the name Hank Janson. I guarantee you an interesting reaction – first the joy of slowly dawning recognition, then a shifty flush of guilt as they realize why they remember it so well. During the Fifties Hank Janson was by far the most famous writer of sexy books in Britain. These days, young men have sex education. Then, ten years after the war, we had Hank.
On my bookshelves are several well-thumbed copies of Good-bye Mr Chips. One is a first edition with a delightful jacket illustration by Bip Pares of Mr Chips asleep in an armchair. Another is a film ‘tie-in’ paperback showing Peter O’Toole and Petula Clark in a scene from the 1969 musical version. A third is a beautifully bound special edition signed by the author and the artist H. M. Brock. And yet another is of Robert Donat and Greer Garson in a scene from the classic film version made in 1939.
Rereading ‘The End of General Gordon’, the fourth of Lytton Strachey’s portraits in Eminent Victorians (1918), is an awful reminder of our failure to learn from history. Gordon’s and Gladstone’s ill-fated machinations in the Sudan are so redolent of Britain’s recent misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as almost to take one’s breath away: substitute either country for Khartoum, and you have an example fearsome enough to deter any but the most fatuous sabre-rattler from going near the place, let alone attempting to influence its political fate from thousands of miles away.
A picture in our little house and a book excited me. There was a coloured print of Sir Walter Raleigh in Elizabethan hose and doublet, sword and feathered hat, explaining his faraway adventures to two children on a beach. And there was the magic of Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, where the young brother and sister act A Midsummer Night’s Dream and meet the pixie Puck, who tells them of the people of the Hills of Old England, imps and trolls and brownies and goblins, who live by Oak, Ash and Thorn. And he relates the history of Ancient Britain in fairy story and fact.
Dr Brewer’s Dictionary (1870) is a uniquely curious lucky dip of a book – part anthology of proverbs, part almanac, part Classical dictionary, part trivia. The man in the street who hadn’t the advantage of schooling in Latin and Greek could now delve to his heart’s content, learning snatches of stories, myths and legends, of history and folklore. The breadth of the book, of one man’s labour, is still impressive.
John Sutherland: ‘I’d take Vanity Fair, which I think is the greatest novel in England.’
Sue Lawley: ‘Not Middlemarch?’
JS: ‘It’s more fun than Middlemarch. And you don’t feel lectured in the same way that you do with George Eliot.’
When my sister was 10 she bought a rather battered copy of a book called Marianne Dreams at our school summer fair. A few years later, when she decided it was too young for her, she handed it on to me. I love puzzles – not particularly the kind that have to be solved, like crosswords, but ones that intrigue in the same way as a complex painting or a spider’s web. Marianne Dreams, published in 1958, is that kind of novel. Its plot is driven by mysterious connections – invisible threads that join together people and things in worlds both real and imaginary – and while the story may be resolved at the end of the book, the puzzle remains.
I was brought up on a diet of George MacDonald Fraser’s anti-hero Flashman as he roistered and rogered his way around the Empire, and I reread many of the books while serving in Northern Ireland. But it was only later that I found out why so many of the details in the books rang true. Fraser had himself experienced war in all its facets.
‘Flashman is back,’ declared the Labour leader Ed Miliband at Prime Minister’s Questions on 11 May 2011. He was referring to David Cameron and he presumably meant to imply that the Tory was a boorish, ill-mannered bully, riding roughshod over the finer feelings of his Parliamentary colleagues. But I did wonder at the time just how well-chosen Miliband’s ‘insult’ really was. Wouldn’t any male politician be secretly thrilled to be likened to Harry Paget Flashman, the fictional Victorian soldier and adventurer?
I have known three mountaineers, but I feel funny standing on a chair to wind the clock if I have nothing to hold on to. Given my fear of heights, it may seem surprising that, as a teenager, I read mountaineering books. But we read, not least in youth, partly to find out who we are and who we are not. I read about what terrified me – Hunt on Everest, Herzog on Annapurna and, most memorably, bridging the gap from childhood, James Ramsey Ullman. Ullman was an adventure-story writer with an eye for film rights who for several decades was the objective but inspirational voice, in history and in fiction, of mountaineering literature, a field dominated by first-person memoirs. His Banner in the Sky (1954) told the Matterhorn story for children, while The White Tower (1950), a fine Second World War mountaineering novel, wonderfully evokes the space, the weather and the neck-craning heights.
I cannot think of many garden writers from a century ago in whose company I would have felt entirely comfortable. William Robinson would have ignored me, Gertrude Jekyll seen through me, and Reginald Farrer unnerved me. But I should dearly have loved to meet Edward Augustus (‘Gussie’) Bowles, and have him conduct me around his garden one sunny day in spring. For by all accounts he was a sweet-tempered and charming, funny and self-deprecating, discerning and cultured man. He spent his entire life at Myddelton House in Bulls Cross, near Enfield, and, around the beginning of the First World War, wrote what amounted to a gardening autobiography, the trilogy My Garden in Spring, My Garden in Summer and My Garden in Autumn and Winter (1914–15). Of these, the first volume is the best.
It is hard to know what has made me a lifelong reader of John Cowper Powys, but perhaps the fact that he was one of three very different brothers who shared a common impulse may be part of the explanation. Like many people I read John Cowper first, but it was not long before I fell under the spell of Theodore, whose Mr Weston’s Good Wine (1927) was still being read when I came across it towards the end of the Sixties. Presented with the lapidary finality one finds in inscriptions in country graveyards, Theodore’s allegory tells how Mr Weston and his assistant Michael arrive in the village of Folly Down, selling wine – the light wine that gives pleasure, the heavy dark wine that brings peace – and then vanish into smoke. Reading the book in my late teens I thought it a perfect inversion of conventional religion, showing how a faith that promised eternal life could be reframed as one in which redemption comes in the form of everlasting death.
I came to them, the second time, quite late,
It was the day
The letters, full of snobbery and race hate
That caused the chattering classes such dismay
Came out, and Terry Eagleton had pounced:
‘Larkin is now beyond the pale,’ he’d said,
‘All decent folk should chuck him off the shelf.’
As soon as this stiff sentence was pronounced,
Feeling perverse, I picked him up instead
Although (because?) I was a ‘wog’ myself.
Richard Cobb was a history don at Balliol, eccentric in a college where oddness is almost routine. He was small and thin, not very prepossessing. Jeremy Lewis, his editor at Chatto & Windus, described him as ‘like a freshly skinned rabbit, red and blue all over and faintly clammy to the touch’. He was certainly memorable to those he taught; Tim Hilton remembered an ‘utter disregard for decorum and discipline. I still hear the French martial music and the crashing of glasses. He was both an example of the scholarly life and a lord of misrule.’ Out of college he was memorable too: Lewis wrote of walking with him after a lunch where as always he’d had plenty to drink. ‘Suddenly, ramrod stiff and with no bending of the knees, Cobb toppled over backwards. His head was only inches from the pavement when I caught him, like Nureyev catching Fonteyn . . .’ Alcohol and anarchy were always magnets. There was no gathering so distinguished he’d avoid being thrown out of it.
Death turns up a lot in Terry Pratchett’s books. He’s one of his most popular characters, a seven-foot-high skeleton with burning blue eyes who speaks in CAPITALS. He is as terrifying as one would expect – except that he has a real horse called Binky (the skeleton ones kept falling apart), loves curry, can’t play chess and has a deep compassion for all the living things whose lives he terminates. I find it a curiously comforting image.
In the early days of Slightly Foxed, in our very first issue in fact, I wrote about a book that had once come my way in the course of my work as a publisher’s editor – a book that had entranced me. Suzanne St Albans’ memoir Mango and Mimosa told the story of her eccentric upbringing in the 1920s and ’30s, when her family moved restlessly between the home her two lovable but ill-assorted parents had created out of the ruins of an old farmhouse near Vence, at the foot of the Alpes-Maritimes, and Assam Java, the plantation her father had inherited in Malaya, at Selangor.
There can’t be many humorous books about everyday life that still make one laugh more than a century after they were written. The pattern of English middle-class life has radically changed since The Diary of a Nobody was first published in 1892, but rereading it recently, I found its fictional author, the City clerk Charles Pooter, of ‘The Laurels’, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, still instantly recognizable. I’m bound to admit that some of the experiences, and also, for heavens’ sake, the attitudes of the ‘pathetic ass who records his trivial life’ (as William Emrys Williams put it in his introduction to the Penguin edition of 1945), seem embarrassingly close to my own. Mr Pooter may have lived more than a hundred years ago – just up the road from where I live now, as it happens, in a house, er, rather similar to mine – but his psychology is timeless.
My small Welsh primary school lay at the end of Boundary Lane, on the Flintshire-Cheshire border. It was a good 20 miles from any beach. Nevertheless, the first thing I remember having to learn was ‘Sea Fever’, possibly the best-known poem at that time in the English-speaking world.
As soon as I could hold a pen I was taught copperplate script by my splendidly bossy elder sister, who was determined to pre-empt any teacher’s pernicious influence. I can still remember the thrill of achieving an infant version of that delicate balance between broad sweep and fine line, of swooping between upper and lower registers, creating delicious patterns on the page that actually meant something. From that promising start my handwriting has deteriorated steadily over the decades, but friends say they still see some trace of its origins, and one legacy of that early tuition is my lifelong love of lettering. As teenagers we biked around East Anglian churches with tubes of paper and blocks of wax crayon poking out of our baskets, alighting to tease out vigorous impressions of ancient brasses in dusty naves, the curlicues of their script imperfectly ghosting through the paper, and I have haunted country graveyards with their slanting stones and lichened legends ever since.
Over the years I have been sent many proof copies of books, but very few that I have bothered to keep. They are, in general, unattractive creatures, with their misprints and vainglorious boasts of future bestsellerdom. But in a corner of an attic shelf I have half a dozen which seem too interesting to throw away, and chief among them is Nicholas Best’s Tennis and the Masai. The mere sight of its dog-eared, pale green cover – embellished only by the Hutchinson logo, with its curious resemblance to a buffalo’s skull – is enough to lift my spirits.
An enthusiastic bibliophile in a certain frame of mind could construct quite a library made up entirely of books that were written in prison. The poetry section would have the esoteric colour of Le Morte d’Arthur and Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos; political thought would be unusually well stocked, with The Consolation of Philosophy and The Prince vying for attention with Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks; and those with an off-beat sense of humour might enjoy the juxtaposition of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. For me, though, the particular highlight of the library would be the history section, in which pride of place would certainly be granted to Fernand Braudel’s monumental work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949).
One of the consequences of being Aldous Huxley’s biographer was that I was invited to Eton, where a 17-year-old schoolboy with the bearing of a middle-aged barrister extended a hand and told me he had read Crome Yellow ‘in my father’s library’. In my mind’s eye I saw a book-lined room opening on to a stone terrace in some country pile like the one in the novel. But then I remembered that the book had been written in a shady back street in the Tuscan seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi in the hot early summer of 1921.
‘What Ulysses is to the novel between the wars and what The Waste Land is to poetry, The Road to Oxiana is to the travel book.’ So says Paul Fussell in the first puff on the back cover of my thirty-year-old paperback edition of Robert Byron’s 1937 masterpiece. Now, as it happens, Professor Fussell – or rather his Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars – is sitting next to me, and what he actually said was, ‘Its distinction tempts one to over-praise, but perhaps it may not be going too far to say that what Ulysses is to the novel . . .’ etc. In the puff, the professorial hedging has been entirely clipped away. Still, it is high praise indeed. Is it deserved? That old stirrer Wilfred Thesiger thought The Road to Oxiana, far from being the great transformative work of twentieth-century travel, was ‘a lot of nonsense’.
At certain times in my life, I have opened a book and discovered a friend. I have chuckled with Anne Shirley over her comical escapades in the quiet town of Avonlea. I have stood under the watchful eye of Aunt Polly and scolded Tom Sawyer for skipping school, only to shrug and offer to whitewash the fence for him once her back was turned. Once I even considered inviting Jo March to dinner, though this idea was quickly dismissed, for I felt quite certain that Jo would go nowhere without her three sisters in tow and before I knew it the entire March clan would show up at my door, for which I had neither the time nor the energy. At this thought I poured myself a cup of tea, took Little Women down from the bookshelf, and visited Jo at her house instead.
In May 1797, the 33rd Regiment of Foot Officers arrives in Calcutta. A round of parties ensues, one at Colonel Sherbrooke’s ‘small mansion’ in the village of Alypore three miles from the city. A guest later describes the company – which includes 28-year-old Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington – as ‘eight as strong-headed fellows as could be found in Hindustan’.
Logorrhoeac, polymagisterial, omniglottal, panchromatic, Anthony Burgess was the most wordy literary figure I have ever met. I use those faintly ludicrous terms of praise because, before I met him, I was hardly aware of their existence. He employed them, with a thousand variants, all the time, in a dozen languages. He was the potentate of the polysyllable. To him, language was a currency: he loved to employ five-, ten- and twenty-pound words, abstruse Latinate constructions, arcane ‘inkhorn terms’, throwing them around like a sailor on shore leave, to show his enthusiasm for the world as he encountered it, a battlefield of huge, mostly ancient ideas which only he, like a twentieth-century Casaubon, could synthesize, using all the words in the dictionary.
When the editors of Slightly Foxed first suggested I take my editorial work to the London Library, I confess I knew very little about the place. From afar, it seemed a refuge for posh authors and a pitstop for peers en route to their clubs, not a place for an unkempt youth like me. And yet, at the Slightly Foxed office, the situation was becoming urgent. With the cocker spaniels growing increasingly distracting and the phones always ringing, how was the editorial assistant ever to do his work? The London Library was the obvious solution, but then there was the issue of the membership fee.
I came upon John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the early Eighties, and was at once rather taken by its main protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. I had never come across such a repulsive hero.
Some bird books, the ones you take with you across mountains, into bogs or through jungles, are small in size, compact and easy to stuff into backpack or pocket, offering ready reference in all locations and in all weathers. C. A. Gibson-Hill’s British Sea Birds is not of that kind. A large hardback, too cumbersome to take into the field, intended for the shelf in library or study, it is a work of education and of celebration. It was written by a man who loved birds for others who shared his passion, to enlighten and delight; and it merits the highest compliment one can pay to such a book – it makes one want to go out and see the birds for oneself, to get to know them as he did.
Alone among the ancient classical verse forms the elegy endures as a modern one. In Augustan Rome – the world of Caesar and Cicero, but also of the elegists Catullus, Propertius and Ovid – the public uses of poetry included epic history, theology, scientific reports and political theory. To write such things in verse now would look clownish, but the spirit of Roman elegy lives on and is, indeed, at the heart of what we call poetry.
I first came across Ahmed Hassanein Bey when bumping across the Libyan Sahara by camel with a friend. This was long before Kindles and iPads helped the bibliophile traveller lighten his load. Between us we had a slightly hodgepodge library consisting of a Koran, a New Testament (a Christmas present from my mother, inscribed with Deuteronomy 2:7: ‘The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast desert’), some Oscar Wilde short stories, P. G. Wodehouse, Trollope, the complete works of Shakespeare, a volume of poetry, Homer’s Odyssey and an Arabic language book. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Hassanein Bey’s The Lost Oases completed the collection to be borne across the desert by our diminutive caravan of five camels: Asfar, Gobber, The Big White, Bobbles and Lebead.
Several times, during a long life of reading, I’ve been tempted to write an autobiography based solely on the books that have counted for me. Someone once told me that it was customary for a Spanish nobleman to have his coat of arms engraved on his bedhead so that visitors might know who it was who lay in a sleep that might always be his last. Why then not be identified by my bedside favourites, which define and represent me better than any symbolic shield? If I ever indulged in such a vainglorious undertaking, a chapter, an early chapter, would be given over to The Wind in the Willows.
I already had something of a habit of collecting old home-making manuals – 1950s ‘Pins and Needles’ books with instructions for making a rag rug or knocking up a stylish telephone table for instance, or Constance Spry’s Flowers in House and Garden; and I’m very attached to a 1930s DIY book on how to lay lino, not least for its demonstration photographs of a man in a home-knitted V-necked sweater who looks very like my father. Nevertheless, I’d managed to restrict my collection to just a few bookshelves until I was commissioned to write a book about Victorian and Edwardian eating and drinking.
Edith Olivier, born in 1872, was one of ten children whose father was for nearly fifty years Rector of Wilton, on the estate of the Earls of Pembroke, outside Salisbury. After the death of their parents, Edith and her beloved sister Mildred were invited by the Earl of Pembroke to live, at a peppercorn rent, in the old Dairy House (which Edith renamed as the Daye House) in Wilton Park. When, in 1924, Mildred died of cancer, Edith was desolate. She wrote in her journal, ‘I cannot realize that I am going to be lonely always.’ Being a devout Anglican – each day of her life she went to an early Eucharist – she considered entering a convent, but at 52 she was told by the Mother Superior not only that she was too old but also that she was ‘too rebellious of mind’.
Nicholson Baker’s fifth novel, The Everlasting Story of Nory, was not, as its 9-year-old heroine might say, the world’s most raging success. I picked it up as a pocket hardback in a clearance sale. A week later, I returned and bought the remaining stock at a pound apiece, to distribute to friends and family.
Those 150 pages were very timely, I now remember, because in just a few escapist hours they cleared my head of the months of swotting for university finals. The weekend before my exams started, a friend who’d left the college sent me a small package containing a paperback which he’d inscribed with a line from Wordsworth, ‘Up up my friend and quit your books’, and his own suggestion that I take his gift and a bottle into a field somewhere, and indulge myself in a sunlit afternoon of plain pleasure. Two weeks later, exams over, lying not in a field but on a sofa, I opened the book without great expectations, but from the gripping first chapter I was hooked. I read it through in one go. With or without a bottle, I can’t say, but definitely it would have been with cigarettes.
I expect that most of us, particularly in the current economic climate, have experienced trying times in our working lives, whether dealing with uncooperative colleagues, rude customers or overbearing management. However, next time you feel inclined to grumble, spare a thought for Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Patterson, the author of The Man-eaters of Tsavo. His account of the extreme difficulties he endured while employed as an engineer on the construction of the Uganda Railway at the end of the nineteenth century is a sure way of keeping one’s own problems in perspective – all the more so since Patterson bore it all without a hint of complaint.
George MacDonald is a man who changes lives. The friend who first handed me MacDonald’s Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood, the fictional memoir of the Reverend Henry Walton, Vicar of Marshmallows, discovered it decades ago, in its delicious three-volume 1867 first edition (ah, for those halcyon days!) when he was a graduate student in Germany. His newly-wed wife was also a graduate student who had recently given birth to their first child. Their financial resources were perilously strained and, as neither of them had read Erasmus on the merits of books versus food, were deemed insufficient for three-volume, leather-bound novels, however enchanting. There was nothing for it but to sit on the floor of the bookshop and read the book there. When he turned the final page several weeks later, he rose stiffly to his feet, went home, and announced his intention to become a minister. MacDonald had shown him the allure of devotion.
London Belongs to Me is Norman Collins’s best-known book, first published in 1945, regularly reprinted throughout the fifties and sixties, once in 1977 and most recently by Penguin in 2008. The hardback edition I own is a 1949 copy, and runs to over 700 pages of small type. In 1948 it was made into a film with a cast of iconic British character actors, among them Alastair Sim, Joyce Carey, Fay Compton and Richard Attenborough. There was also a six-part television series in 1977, again with a roster of the best of British, including a young Trevor Eve.
‘That is the only church built in Russia during the Soviet era,’ the guide said, pointing at a bleak white building near the shoreline. A few more yards and we could see the full sweep of the Baltic from one promontory of Tallinn Bay to the other. The water had a steely look to it. This was the venue for the sailing events in the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and the grudging attempt at church-building was meant for those athletes who valued prayer. The skyline was a profile of what history has done to this Estonian city: blocks of soulless high-rise flats from the Stalinist era, a clutch of small-scale skyscrapers and docked cruise liners dwarfing the old part of the city.
I love finding things that have been stuffed long ago into old books – a letter perhaps, a photograph, or just an old laundry bill with its pounds and pence redolent of an older England, where once Chaucer rode to Canterbury and Falstaff drank his fill. Or more recently, where the Brontës conjured moonlit paths and Hardy drowned a mill.
Seren Bell was brought up deep in the Devonshire countryside and now lives in the beautiful Wye valley on the Welsh borders. Her work, in pen, ink and crayon, is concerned with the animals that are part of our rural heritage and reflects her love for them and the landscape in which she walks every day.
Our popular Slightly Foxed Paperbacks are perfect for slotting into a coat pocket or bag, and make charming presents. Delightful to look at, pocket-sized and elegantly produced on good cream paper (complete with French flaps), these reissues of classic memoirs are wonderful reads – all of them absorbing and highly individual. So whether you’re in need of a good book or a present for someone you’re fond of, do seize the chance to stock up now.
In the parochial lies the universal, or does it? Join us on a trip to the British countryside as we plough into the matter of nature, landscape and the rural world in literature to find out more. Together with Juliet Blaxland, author of Wainwright Prize shortlisted The Easternmost House, and Jay Armstrong of Elementum Journal, the Slightly Foxed Editors and host Philippa share tales of living on the edge of eroding cliffs, pioneering bird photographers, ancient arboreal giants, guerrilla rewilding and favourite loam and lovechild comfort reads. In this month’s forage through the magazine’s archives, we go down to the Folly Brook to explore a vanishing world with ‘BB’ and his little grey men and, to finish, there are the usual wide-ranging recommendations for books to take your reading off the beaten track.
You read a book, laugh a lot, recommend it to your friends. Some laugh, others don’t. Why is a sense of humour so individual and at the same time so culturally specific? We are mostly moved to the same emotional responses by tragedy, but we don’t laugh at the same things and I’ve always wondered why. There are many kinds of humour and life would be intolerable without it, but as society changes, so humour changes too. We still weep at old Greek tragedies – but laugh at old Greek comedies? Not so much.
Decades ago wits, poets and dukes
Circled like planets round Gloria Jukes,
Bluestocking, tuft-hunter, grande amoureuse –
Was ever a salon brilliant as hers?
In the summer of 1974, the author Olivia Manning reread the transcript of a BBC radio talk she had given eleven years earlier about her arrival in Cairo in 1941 with her husband, Reggie Smith. Although she was not well, it inspired her to follow her Balkan trilogy (see SF no. 63), detailing the wartime experiences of Harriet and Guy Pringle in Bucharest and Athens, with a second sequence set in Egypt and the Middle East. The task took five years and by the time it was finished Manning had only months to live. She died in July 1980, aged 72.
Joan Aiken was the daughter of the American poet laureate Conrad Aiken and the Canadian writer Jessie MacDonald, and two of her siblings also wrote books, so writing clearly ran in the family. From her pen came a raft of books, including a handful of Jane Austen sequels, period romances, supernatural short stories and most things in between. What I want to write about here though is her sequence of eleven novels for children that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1962 – page-turning adventure stories, set in a mostly historical past, with a sprinkling of the paranormal and a bucketful of brilliant characters.
When I was a child, people of a certain age who met my father often remarked, ‘You look just like Simon Callow.’ I had no idea who Simon Callow was, so my father bought me his autobiography, Being an Actor (1986). Over the years it has become my battered treasure, all creased corners and cracked spine, highlighted and annotated, lent to friends and quickly sought back. Callow takes us into a singular world where the emotions and anxieties of ordinary life are exposed, examined and amplified. He offers insight into what it is to be an actor and, I would say, what it is to be human.
T. H. White (1906–64) was clearly a strange fellow, which should be evident to anyone who has read his books. The best known, of course, is his Arthurian epic, The Once and Future King (progenitor of Camelot), but he also wrote such memorable – and delightful – books as Mistress Masham’s Repose (about a crew of Lilliputians who fetch up in the garden of an English estate, see SF no. 2), a moving account of training a goshawk, and a sort of diary about field sports and flying called England Have My Bones. He even translated a medieval bestiary.
I met the novelist Ruth Adler thirty years ago. She was then in her eighties, an elegant, quietly spoken but forthright woman. For a while she had been, as my husband put it, one of his many mothers. For much of his childhood during the Second World War and in the years that followed, while his own mother was working after her divorce, Raphael was parked on relatives or close friends. All of them, like Ruth Adler – the pen name of Ray Waterman – were members of the British Communist Party, the majority having joined in the 1930s. ‘Party’ households were not renowned for their comfort; Raphael’s mother scorned domesticity as bourgeois. So he generally found himself in cheerless, spartan rooms strewn with a few utilitarian items, table and chairs piled up with pamphlets, as if awaiting a committee meeting. But Ray’s house was special. Soft furnishings, pottery, paintings and, above all, the feeling of a home.
In the north London suburb of Edmonton where I grew up, virtually the only feature of note is Charles Lamb’s cottage in Church Street, which is marked with a blue plaque. The essayist lived there in the first half of the nineteenth century. Lamb was born in 1775 and in 1792 began thirty-three years of tedious work as a clerk at the East India Company counting-house. Over the length of his adult life he lived – on and off – with his sister Mary. Their story is told in Sarah Burton’s highly readable A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb (2003).
Of all Richard Wagner’s music dramas, the one I know best is Tristan und Isolde, as do a lot of people, I imagine. I first came to it as an undergraduate, courtesy of the LPs lent me by my tutorial partner. At the age of 19, Henry was already an authority on Wagner, thanks in large part to the volunteer work he’d been doing for three years as a scene-shifter and odd-jobber at the Bayreuth Festival.
Obviously, the telling of anecdotes can become a dangerous addiction; there’s the risk of becoming like the chap who has memorized a thousand jokes and relentlessly reels them off in the saloon bar. The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, edited by the late James Sutherland and first published in 1975, is an honourable exception.
One summer’s evening, at the age of 13 or 14, Rose Tremain had what she describes as ‘an epiphany’. She had been playing tennis with friends at school, but was alone, when she was overcome with the certainty that writing was ‘the only thing I wanted to do’; that her life would be half-lived if not devoted to words. It would be quite a while before she was able to live out this conviction – when her first novel was published she was in her early thirties – but in the fullness of time Rose Tremain was to become one of the most prolific and best-loved novelists of her generation . . .
At boarding school in the late Sixties we had as our English teacher a Miss J. H. B. Jones. Coaxing us self-absorbed teenagers through the A-level syllabus she was diffident, patient and unassuming, and had it not been for a brief conversation in which she suggested I read The Death of the Heart (1938) by Elizabeth Bowen, I’m sorry to say I would by now have forgotten her utterly. But I went off for the long summer holiday and took her advice; I have my Penguin copy fifty years later, and the cover illustration of a young girl wearing an anguished expression still takes me back to those inevitably anguished years.
It was some time in the mid-Sixties when things began to change in my mother’s kitchen. First we got a fridge. Farewell mesh-doored meat safe, farewell flecks of curdled milk floating in your tea. The second thing that happened was Fanny Cradock. This was a brief love affair – my mum later transferred her culinary trust and affection to Delia Smith – but while it lasted its impact was astonishing. Expenditure on piping bags, time spent tracking down a butter curler and a grapefruit knife, foods coloured contrary to the laws of Nature: the responsibility for this and much more could be laid at Fanny’s door.
The great wave of Romanticism that swept over Scottish literature from the mid-Victorian era onwards was always going to have its answering cry. This tendency was particularly marked among the group of twentieth-century writers who had grown up in its paralysing shadow. There you were, in your draughty schoolroom somewhere near Inverness, being lectured about Queen Victoria’s ‘Jacobite moods’ and having it dinned into your head that Waverley was the greatest novel ever written north of the Tweed, while outside the window the unemployment queues grew longer and the winds swept in from continental Europe.
Patrick Hamilton, now best known for his novel Hangover Square and the play Gaslight, was a troubled man who is often seen as the court poet of shabby alcoholics and wandering drunkards. He is, however, also the bard of a particular area west of London, that part of the Thames valley that extends from just beyond Slough to Reading, where his characters often go to seek refuge from the excesses of the city. This is a strange hinterland of pretty villages and small towns occupied largely by people who work in London, places that are eerily quiet during the week (apart from the air traffic from Heathrow, which of course Hamilton knew nothing about) and yet vitally attached to the metropolis.
We lived in Dahl’s world, my brother and I more literally than most children since we grew up a couple of miles from Gypsy House, his home in Great Missenden. As we drove past it my parents would always say: ‘That’s where Roald Dahl lives.’ I think I used to doubt them. Could Dahl really live somewhere as prosaic as an ordinary house in rural Buckinghamshire? I liked to think he lived in a Willy Wonka-style factory turning out madcap books with the help of oompa loompas. I met him once at a charity event; he was sitting at a table looking very old and signing books.
Reading Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure this summer, the memory of my first acquaintance with her has been strong. I’ve heard the precise tones and emphases of her own reading in every line and I’ve realized what I didn’t before, namely that her story offers a wonderfully detailed and idiosyncratic account of life between the wars in Britain. Her narrative is punctuated with well-known names, but above all it offers a vivid sense of what it was like to inhabit a body at a particular point in time.
‘This is a beautiful, sparkling book, a brief glimpse of a wild childhood that is recognizable even in its strangeness – he has captured the essence of youth, that delicate balance of happiness and misery.’
Before we become tangled in ribbon and swaddled in wrapping paper, we thought it timely to browse our bookshelves and head to the windswept shores of Galloway for some bracing fresh air. This article by Galen O’Hanlon appeared as the preface to our limited hardback edition of Gavin Maxwell’s The House of Elrig.
‘An attractive flyer slipped out from the pages and grabbed my attention. It was about Slightly Foxed, a British quarterly literary magazine “for literary nonconformists.” I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced love at first sight, but this came close. I was hooked even before I made it to the Slightly Foxed website . . . I’ve only just received my first issue, and my “to-read” list has already become much longer.’
Reading this book is like returning to an old friend. I remember reading it as a child . . . Slightly Foxed have re-issued my old friend in a gorgeous new edition – their books are always a pleasure to read. Beautifully bound, with the original illustrations by C. Walter Hodges (the Roman watchtower on page 216 is really evocative of an abandoned outpost of Empire north of the Wall) . . .
‘The etiquette of bedtime reading is such a delicate matter that we must approach it on tiptoe . . .’
Greetings from No. 53 where we’re battening down hatches and stacking up reading piles as we approach winter, on tiptoe or otherwise, and watch the nights draw in ever closer. The clocks go back this Sunday, giving us an extra hour in bed with a good book. Therefore, we’re turning back the clocks to Slightly Foxed Issue 37 and appreciating some amusing and enlightening pillow talk from Oliver Pritchett, all about the delicate etiquette of reading in bed.
‘I came across your wonderful podcast this morning on the Slightly Foxed website. It really sums up our world and the joy our work brings.’ ILAB
The majority of the book is Bell being introduced to a task, doing it badly, and getting better. What makes Corduroy such an enjoyable book is the way he writes about the experience. He is never patronizing about the labourers, and nor does he idolize them with the eye of a Romantic poet.
Gail, Hazel and host Philippa enter the world of second-hand bookselling with Chris Saunders of Henry Sotheran’s, the world’s oldest antiquarian bookshop. From folios to quartos, half-binding to cockling, foxing to forgery, they tackle trade terminology and share tales of rarities and curiosities. The conversation ranges far and wide in the typical Slightly Foxed manner – from Parisian romances and the libraries of English country houses to outsized ornithological specimens and books of unusual provenance. In this month’s wander through the magazine’s archives Nigel Anthony recounts the tale of a bookseller’s quest for bibliophilic bliss in a sleepy corner of the Cotswolds, and there’s the usual round-up of recommended reading from off the beaten track.
‘I have found a book, and three more to follow, which is such a joy and has delighted me so much . . . These books are superbly produced and so elegant to look at and to hold . . . these books from Slightly Foxed are like perfect gems.’
Jennie Erdal wrote letters, speeches and articles for a flamboyant London publisher. But when he asked her to write a novel – a passionate romance – in his name she faced her biggest challenge . . .
Read an extract from Ghosting featured in the Guardian.
Scanning the contents page, I could see that these were tiny stories about everyday subjects, most no more than a couple of pages long – prose sketches rather than conventional narratives – with titles like ‘Trousers’, ‘The Job Application’ or ‘The Boat’. But in the middle there was one covering more than sixty pages called ‘The Walk’. It was the first story I read by Walser, and it introduced me to a writer of both tragic and exultant modesty.
We are delighted to let you know that 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is now available as a cloth-bound hardback Plain Foxed Edition. It’s a gloriously heart-warming read, the account of a friendship – almost a love story – conducted through books that captures the essence of a slower, gentler era.
‘A comfort read must be a constant sensory delight and it is here that Brendon Chase really excels. Almost every page has a treat for the senses – wood smoke, the discovery of a an iridescent purple emperor butterfly, or wild swimming. And through the inadvertent, ecstatic discoveries of the grownups chasing the boys, BB shows how adults can rediscover these pleasures too . . .’
‘Erdal is gossipy but good-natured, and maintains a stalwart fondness for her boss . . . their partnership has generated an unusually rich and entertaining memoir – hilarious, infuriating and unforgettable.’
Gail, Hazel and host Philippa are transported to Orkney as they explore the life and works of the poet and novelist George Mackay Brown OBE. Together with his biographer Maggie Fergusson and Colin Waters of the Scottish Poetry Library, they bring to light a writer who was at once a solitary soul and a raconteur, a lover and a drinker, a member of the Edinburgh literati yet fame-shy. From the oft-recited ‘Hamnavoe’ to the Booker-nominated Beside the Ocean of Time Mackay Brown’s work sings of his island roots, interweaving life and social history with myth and legend. In this month’s travels through the magazine’s archives, Christopher Robbins and Rory Murphy tackle the high falutin literary rap of Finnegans Wake, and there are the usual wide-ranging recommendations for reading off the beaten track too.
We are pleased to share news of the latest addition to the Slightly Foxed Editions list, No. 48: Boy by Roald Dahl.
‘This is not an autobiography. I would never write a history of myself. On the other hand, throughout my young days at school and just afterwards a number of things happened to me that I have never forgotten.’
No one who reads it is likely to forget Dahl’s recollections either. It’s easy to see where the ogres who people Dahl’s fiction come from . . .
Bailey Hill is the well-loved independent bookshop in Castle Cary, a town that lies between the Somerset Levels, Mendip Hills and the Blackmore Vale. This haven for booklovers encourages browsing and buying with a wide range of contemporary fiction and non-fiction and children’s books for all ages, as well as local and natural history, walking guides, topography and maps, as befits its beautiful location.
‘Slightly Foxed comes four times a year and turns that day into gold’ | We’re delighted to let you know that the Autumn issue of Slightly Foxed magazine (No. 63) has left the printing press at Smith Settle. We do hope you’ll enjoy the new issue wherever in the world you are. It ranges far and wide in the usual eclectic manner . . .
We’re delighted that the Slightly Foxed Podcast has been selected as one of the Sunday Times Top 100 Podcasts to Love.
Aged 14, I read Gaudy Night simply as a tantalizing romance masquerading as a thriller. Rereading it now I see it as a ghost story, its form demanded by its subject matter. The ghosts float across the text as metaphors that are not merely decorative, as elements of style, but fundamental to the plot, which has to do, crucially, with language, written and spoken: language stolen, repressed, destroyed.
Are writers born or bred? One of my grandfathers was a poet – an exact contemporary of Kipling, though rather less famous. His main contribution to literature was the invention of the poetry postcard. He also invented ‘The Quick and Easy Method of Washing Floors’, that ingenious bucket with a pedal that presses two rollers together and squeezes your mop, and which is found in every school and hospital throughout the universe; he sold the rights to it for, I think, twenty guineas.
As a beneficiary of the Welfare State and the Permissive Society – to name just two of their life-enhancing achievements – I owe an enormous debt to the liberal intelligentsia who, in the teeth of opposition from the Old Gang, brought them to pass. But who were these irreverent shock troops and what motivated them? The answer is given by one of their standard bearers, Noel Annan (1916‒2000), in his dazzling group portrait Our Age (1990), which is not only a joy to read but also a wonderful crib for anyone studying the social history of Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s.
Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) is a poem about love and death, the two things which change all things – which is a powerful reason for reading what happens to be a powerful piece of writing, one of the key works of the nineteenth century, and one which has been described antithetically as the epitome of Victorian scepticism and of Christian faith.
Florence Marian McNeill, known as Floss, understood the importance of regional dishes. You may know her better as a folklorist; but without The Scots Kitchen, first published in 1929, she’d never have begun collecting the scraps of song, story, local traditions and unlikely remedies which grew over the years to become her definitive work on folklore, The Silver Bough.
At the back of Penelope Fitzgerald’s only short-story collection, The Means of Escape (2000), there is a charming black-and-white photograph of the author. It shows her buttoned into a high-collared shirt under a garment that appears to be an academic robe but could simply be a very large cardigan. Not quite smiling, she looks gentle yet distinguished, exactly as I remember her; and, as I looked at the photograph, there she was again and so was I, back in the old public library at the top of Highgate Hill in north London.
It is an irony that the dramatization of a novel may deter not spur. Instead of leading the viewer to the book, it becomes a substitute. Such a fate appears to have befallen Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, which in its Balkan and Levant trilogies traces the wartime travails of young Harriet and Guy Pringle as they flee the advancing Germans, first in Bucharest and Athens, then in Egypt and the Middle East. The six volumes were published to acclaim between 1960 and 1980. Yet Manning’s work is now probably better remembered as the 1987 BBC TV dramatization starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh.
Rosemary Sutcliff knew about chariots. In the first of her four Roman books, The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), her young hero, the centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, politely suggests to his British friend Cradoc that the British are all charioteers. Cradoc replies (accurately): ‘The British can all drive after a fashion; not every one is a charioteer.’ Marcus, however, is the real thing, the best in his Legion. Elegantly he slaloms Cradoc’s four strong little black stallions through planted spears, and then, reaching open land, he gives them their heads and they are off, at full gallop.
Throughout his work – James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Fantastic Mr Fox (1970), Danny, The Champion of the World (1975), The Twits (1980), The BFG (1982) and more – Dahl is firmly on the side of the child, whose world is generally populated by adult grotesques, full of cruelty, unkindness and absurd demands. In Boy, we can see where these creatures come from.
The first book I ever bought for myself was Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. I’ve bought thousands more books since, but Ballet Shoes is still a very special favourite. It hasn’t been out of print since it was published in 1936. I recently treated myself to a first edition with its rare silver cover (so fragile it generally disintegrated within weeks) but my first copy was a Puffin paperback.
Should you really never judge a book by its cover? Had I gone along with that dictum years ago I would not have happened upon Edmund Crispin. Shameful though it is to admit it, I was attracted not by the name of the author – unknown to me – but by a Penguin Crime jacket. Its green and cream design caught my eye at an Amnesty International book sale in the church opposite our house. Our dining-room had recently been redecorated, and I judged Frequent Hearses would, suitably displayed, tone with the colour scheme.
The date is 28 September 1939. The author cannot know that what he will record in this 15-shilling notebook – and the many that follow it over the next six years – will become an astonishing first-hand account of Britain’s darkest hours, and a vivid, often harrowing portrait of one of its greatest leaders. For this is an extraordinary soldier, General Sir Alan Brooke, later Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, destined to become Churchill’s right-hand man as head of the British armed forces, and broker of the Grand Alliance with Roosevelt and Stalin. Yet despite the pivotal role he played, his name is still comparatively little known.
Davidson’s book offers us a series of intense, lyrical and surprisingly moving meditations on landscapes, buildings and mythical settings, as seen at the close of day through the eyes of painters and writers. The Last of the Light is a spellbinding exploration of that haunted moment of transition, either on some particular evening or in the history of the civilizations through which Davidson effortlessly roams. Again and again we find ourselves confronting the familiar with fresh eyes, noticing the tiny but significant details that he brings to the fore and quickens into life.
1. Jan Struther, the well-known and successful writer, lecturer, radio performer etc. (with a subdivision called Jan Struther, the much-too-little-known and really pretty terrific serious poet whose depth and brilliance will only really be appreciated by a discerning literary public after she is dead!)
That ‘item no. 1’ was the first on a list concocted by my grandmother Jan Struther in a letter to her brother Douglas in 1951.
Louise O’Hara is a professional mixed media artist based in the heart of Cheshire. Her style has been described as quintessentially English, romantic and nostalgic. The work she produces is influenced by tactile aged surfaces such as peeling paint on walls and fabrics that are threadbare but which are laden with memories.
‘The best kind of historical fiction, far too good to be limited to children’s bookshelves’
We are pleased to announce the publication of two new titles in the Slightly Foxed Cubs series of highly collectable classic children’s books, The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff.
Sometime about the year AD 117, the Ninth Legion, which was stationed at Eburacum where York now stands, marched north to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes, and was never heard of again.
Rosemary Sutcliff (1920‒92) wrote three of her four great historical novels for children set during the last years of the Roman occupation of Britain – The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers (winner of the Carnegie Medal) – between 1954 and 1959, and the fourth, Frontier Wolf, which comes third in the chronological story, in 1980. Slightly Foxed is now reissuing all four of the Roman novels, with their original illustrations, in a limited, numbered edition.
Wednesday 2 October 2019
Hatchards Booksellers on Piccadilly were delighted to host biographer Edmund Gordon and theatre critic Susannah Clapp for an evening celebrating the life and work of Angela Carter. This was the second in an event series with Slightly Foxed and the Biographers’ Club.
187 Piccadilly, London W1J 9LE
Just who are literary festivals for and why do we love them so much? Gail, Steph and host Philippa go backstage with Anne Oxborough of the well-established Ways With Words and Michael Pugh of recent start-up the Llangwm Literary Festival to find out more. From the delights of surprise-hit speakers, post-show river swims, vodka-fuelled poetry sessions and the rise of fancy food stalls to the horrors of airborne green rooms, bacon-roll bust-ups and rail replacement buses, the conversation ranges far and wide in the usual Slightly Foxed way. In this month’s audio-adventure through the magazine’s archives the writer and performer A. F. Harrold goes speed-dating with Iris Murdoch at Cheltenham Literature Festival and, to finish, there’s the usual round-up of recommended reading from off the beaten track.
If anything, my experience with James Cameron’s book An Indian Summer (1974) demonstrates the need for magazines like Slightly Foxed. In the 1980s I was working in India as the British Council’s books officer and reading everything I could find about the subcontinent: V. S. Naipaul’s sober tomes; Forster and Ackerley on the Maharajahs; Eric Newby on negotiating the Ganges in a small boat; Sarah Lloyd’s An Indian Attachment, about her affair with a young Sikh. Because of my job I was ideally placed to find the right stuff, yet it was only during my fifth year in India that I discovered what was – and still is – the best book I’ve read on the subject.
We are delighted to let you know that, following sell-out runs in its original limited SF Edition and subsequent paperback incarnation, Corduroy has just been published as a cloth-bound hardback Plain Foxed Edition. These sturdy little books, bound in duck-egg blue cloth, come in the same neat pocket format as the original SF Editions and will happily fill any gaps on your shelves, as well as forming a delightful uniform edition on their own.
‘It’s just good writing about good books, written by people who love them . . . It’s made me chuckle, and smile, and feel that, in fact, the world is still a kind and civilized place.’
Pocketable Paperbacks, Collectable Cubs, Irresistible Issues
Herewith our occasional plea to our dear readers to help us clear a few shelves this August by stocking up on paperbacks, notebooks, back issues, Cubs and greetings cards. Various bundles and other tempting offers appear in the newsletter . . .
Chloe Cheese makes prints, drawings and sometimes illustrations. She was brought up in the Essex village of Great Bardﬁeld but now lives in London where she has been since she graduated from the Royal College of Art in the 1970s. In her work she seeks out the details of daily life and draws them.
‘The summer issue was a delight. I couldn’t contemplate life without my quarterly edition of Slightly Foxed – it should be available on the NHS for SAD sufferers – its arrival and the anticipation of the goodies therein always lifts my spirits significantly. You are without doubt the purveyors of the most outstanding literary magazine available. I prostrate myself before you and bow to the literary magic that you weave. May it long continue.’
Period Piece features punting, picnics on Grantchester Meadows and problems with corsets and bicycles, all illustrated with Raverat’s delightful drawings, often featuring the family’s put-upon dog . . . It’s the perfect book to read in a garden on these sunny summer days.
welcomed friends, subscribers and local book-lovers to celebrate a bumper crop of autumn offerings. Our guests browsed the shelves, stocked up on good reading and enjoyed a glass of wine with the Slightly Foxed team.
Many thanks to all who attended and made the party such a joyful occasion.
‘I just want to tell you how much I enjoy the podcast. It is splendid in every regard, and I await the 15th of the month with great anticipation. And I was thrilled when, in the July episode you noted that the Autumn Foxed Quarterly will have a piece on Olivia Manning and on Gaudy Night. I just reread The Balkan Trilogy, and Gaudy Night is a life book for me. I had been working on an essay on Gaudy Night to enter in your annual competition, but now will set that aside and look forward to reading about it in the next issue.’
‘Greetings from Crete which is where I listened to the latest podcast. It may sound idyllic sitting on a balcony over-looking the sea, but I do miss an English garden. Reference to Lady Hillingdon took me back to my Somerset garden I left some years ago where I had a yellow rose named after the lady climbing up a pergola. I often think if I was to write an essay about leaving that small but much-loved garden the title would be ‘On leaving Lady Hillingdon’. Thank you for the podcasts which help to sooth a sometimes homesick brow.’
Tables laden with book displays, vases of flowers and choice literary quotes writ large welcome customers as they enter from the hustle of Piccadilly, while knowledgeable booksellers provide recommendations and guidance throughout its many floors – as well as beautifully gift-wrapped parcels with signature dark-green ribbon if a book-buyer so desires.
‘A country boy with a fossilized village upbringing and a close affinity with the natural world, I was naturally drawn to Hardy, and to this story in particular with its deliberately evocative title. And I imagined the book would be a literary extension of my own rural habitat. We lived out between the sea and the fields – where horse-gear still jingled and the farmers still laid out the harvest as they had done for centuries in house-high haystacks. Hardy’s rustics were people I knew personally. In my adolescence I conducted the customary love-affair with language and literature. I mooned around country churchyards, pretending I was – not Thomas Hardy, but Thomas Gray . . .
‘As always a complete delight which takes one away to a calm and peaceful place full of interest and inspiration leaving just a slight frustration as to how to find the time to read all these wonderful books. On this occasion I have particularly enjoyed the synchronicity of the podcast being on the topic of garden writing. I have just finished reading my first book on gardening (although when I look I have several on my shelves) – Hidcote: The Making of a Garden by Ethne Clarke.’
‘Many thanks for your podcasts which always lead me down a delicious byway to forgotten places and people. Your mention of your search for memoirs reminded me of Flavia Leng’s memoir of her mother Daphne du Maurier. I read it many years ago and I looked it out yesterday to see if it was as good as I remembered. It is an extraordinary story of a childhood in a dysfunctional family and I reread it in a single sitting which is very rare for me. I cannot pretend that it leaves a cosy picture of Daphne, Boy or Menabilly but there is a raw honesty which is compelling.’
‘I was visiting London last autumn and purchased two issues of Slightly Foxed. I’ve fallen in love with your quarterly. I held off subscribing because we’re on a strict budget here and I live in the States, so, it’s a bit more expensive. After listening to all of your delightful and erudite podcasts, I fell even harder for all things Slightly Foxed, so I took a deep breath and subscribed to the quarterly. I can’t wait to receive my first issue. Thank you for your podcast, by the way. There is such a warmth and a feeling of intimacy to the discussions around the table – I wish I was there! I find myself writing down book titles as I listen. Thank you from a reader/listener in New York.’
‘I am so pleased I am once again on your mailing list. This little publication is such a pleasure to read as are the podcasts to listen to.’
‘Cowper kept the forces of darkness at bay by constant occupation. At first this took the form of gardening and caring for a menagerie of pets, including his tame hares Bess, Puss and Tiny. Cecil is at his most vivid…
‘I thoroughly enjoyed listening to your recent podcast on travel writing. I was particularly taken with the recommendation for Patrick Leigh Fermor’s work, and so I tracked down a copy of his A Time of Gifts. I’m finding it a wonderful read – thank you so much.’
‘A treasure box of books came yesterday and I’m in heaven. O. Douglas is by my bed and I started the day with Hitler. Maybe not such a good idea – it reminds me too much of today’s politics. Thank you thank you thank you all at SF for a place to go and feel as though there is are folks out there like me. I also love the way the books were packed; years ago (before any of you were born) I worked for a little book service in South Kensington – and we shipped books everywhere, always packed in cut-down corrugated boxes and with lashings of tape. My mother sent care packages that way too, and so do I . . . It’s terribly hot and humid here and I’m off to buy another bookcase.’
Gail, Hazel and host Philippa dig into the subject of garden writing with the journalist and social historian Ursula Buchan and Matt Collins, nature writer and Head Gardener at London’s Garden Museum. The conversation meanders convivially in the usual Slightly Foxed manner, via daredevil plant-hunters, early wild gardening advocates such as Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson and Vita Sackville-West, and the passing passions and fashions of garden design, with a peek over the hedge at Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter along the way. And there’s the usual round-up of the latest bookish harvest from the Slightly Foxed office and plenty of recommendations for reading off the beaten track too.
‘Just to tell you that I so enjoyed the latest podcast on travel writing. Hearing you talk about Patrick Leigh Fermor and Eric Newby was so delightful as they’ve been favourites of mine for a while and I now think them as old friends. Your themes are always fresh and interesting and make me want to read more and discover new literary gems. I like the length of your podcasts too – about 30 mins is just right; not so long that you get bored and tap pause (and never return) but long enough to be really interesting and I always listen to it all and look forward to the next one. The dogs must have a very nice life too in their literary haven.’
‘Lovely article on Durrell. I recently read My Family and Other Animals. My husband found this vaguely disturbing as I often laughed out loud uproariously for no apparent reason. It is a charming and delightful read. Thanks for reminding me of the fun of reading.’
Let’s sit back with a long cool drink in hand to be spirited away from the hustle and bustle of Hoxton to the island paradise of Corfu with Gerald Durrell and family. This lovely piece by Simon Barnes was commissioned as the preface to our limited hardback edition of My Family and Other Animals . . .
Mantel … writes … with a fine ear and a furious intelligence, as she resurrects phantoms who “shiver between the lines.”
Our handsome edition of Elspeth Huxley’s much-loved memoir of her childhood in Kenya will soon go out of print and we won’t be reissuing it so, if you’ve been thinking about adding this delightful book (bound in burnt orange cloth with jungle green endpapers) to your collection, now’s the time . . .
‘Why haven’t I tuned in to the Slightly Foxed podcast until this afternoon?! I feel like I’m at the kitchen table, drinking tea. Love the conversation and the dogs! Sending love from Jaipur, India.’
‘My wife has been a subscriber for a while and she loves it! We have just arranged an annual subscription for old friends as we are sure they will love it too. But my message is this. Your website is one of the best, if not ‘the’ best website I have used! It is very user friendly and entertaining to boot. Thank you; wish all websites were as good!’
‘I received my order today; I did not realize the books would be so beautifully presented. Very happy! In fact, now I am seriously considering buying more, even though I now have all this particular series.’
Early in 1925 there arrived at the Hogarth Press in London’s Tavistock Square a parcel, sent from Zululand, containing the manuscript of Turbott Wolfe, the first novel of an unknown writer named William Plomer. Leonard Woolf wrote back promptly, saying it looked ‘very interesting’ and that once Virginia, who was ill, had read it, he would write again. Plomer, living at a trading store in Entumeni, outside the forested hilltop town of Eshowe (named onomatopoeically in Zulu after the sound of wind in trees), was overjoyed. Two months later, Leonard wrote again, making an offer of publication, and weeks afterwards followed up with the news that Harcourt Brace & Co. in New York wanted to publish it too.
In 1953 the writer E. M. Forster, then aged 74, was sorting through old family papers and thinking about the past. He had recently moved back to King’s College, Cambridge, and the high-ceilinged spacious room where he sat was filled with treasured objects from his previous homes: shelves overflowing with books, framed family portraits on the walls and blue china plates neatly arranged on the mantelpiece. Letters gathered in a drift around his shabby William Morris armchair as he pored over his great-aunt Marianne Thornton’s diaries and recollections.
‘I listened to the podcast last night on my evening stroll and enjoyed it enormously. As ever, it gave me plenty of inspiration for further reading too: I’ve been a fan of Norman Lewis for a long time, but hadn’t come across A Dragon Apparent, which I’ll now add to the list of books to look out for! The podcast really is a delight; I hope it is as much fun to record as it sounds!’
‘I just finished reading the summer issue of Slightly Foxed, which I thoroughly enjoyed curled up on the sofa with my dog while a summer storm raged outside here in Texas. Thanks for making such a lovely publication that gives this reader new books to add to my list!’
‘I just love your podcasts and all the lovely information about books. I always feel as if I am sitting round the table with you all and the dogs and even the background noises, builders and sometimes other things. So glad you sent photos of the dogs. Now I can put faces to the sounds. I’ve been a subscriber to Slightly Foxed for several years now and read it avidly when it comes. You are so generous with all your newsletters etc. I only wish I could manage to find time to read more! You are all very much appreciated. Thank you.’
Hazel, Jennie and host Philippa explore the art of travel writing with the acclaimed author and biographer Sara Wheeler and Barnaby Rogerson of the well-loved independent publisher Eland Books. Buckle-up and join us on an audio adventure that takes in a coach trip around England, an Arctic sojourn, a hairy incident involving a Victorian lady and her trusty tweed skirt and a journey across Russia in the footprints of its literary greats, with nods to Bruce Chatwin, Isabella Bird, Norman Lewis, Martha Gellhorn and Patrick Leigh Fermor along the way. And to bring us back down to earth, there’s the usual round-up of news from back home in Hoxton Square and plenty of recommendations for reading off the beaten track.
‘Chuffed. I believe that’s the word. Entirely, wall-to-wall chuffed. The books arrived yesterday, and they are lovely. Thanks very much for this. I’m off to read.’
Wednesday 3 July 2019
Hatchards Booksellers on Piccadilly were delighted to host Bart van Es in the first of an event series with Slightly Foxed and The Biographers’ Club. Bart was interviewed by journalist and writer Rachel Cooke.
‘I’m a bit behind on the podcasts, which I love, and have just listened to No 5. The years rolled back for me when the topic turned to Virago books. I well remember hearing a radio discussion in the 1970s, (maybe on Woman’s Hour?) about this new publishing company and thinking to myself that it sounded new and exciting. I still have my first Virago purchase, Precious Bane by Mary Webb. I don’t understand how Virago can be more than forty years old when I’m sure I’m scarcely older now than I was then!’
‘I have so enjoyed your podcast, it is like being in the room with you, and it is a very nice room – and good company to be in.’
‘My books arrived safely and well-packed as usual. I love both of them. I always have collected your Slightly Foxed editions. The BB series are excellent, I had the originals to read to my little brother when we were small, so they are great favourites. Thank you for providing such riches and for your magazine, which, in my opinion, is the best literary magazine on the market.’
‘Well Issue 62 is another triumph. I’m always rather surprised at how well the editors and contributors know what I’m currently enjoying, or about to read, or how much they remind me of old classics. Especially the piece on Jonathan Meades – he’s a slightly unlikely hero of mine, and Andrew Nixon has captured his writing perfectly. I occasionally disagree with Meades, on television or on the page, but I always enjoy being provoked by him. This might be something to do with the unusual fact that his mother taught me for a year at primary school. She was fearsome and impressive and always wore a pair of furry boots, as if she had recently murdered a womble and then skinned it. She would refer to Jonathan on occasion – he was yet to make his name. I therefore also really loved An Encyclopaedia of Myself, and especially the way he conjured the part of Salisbury we lived in.’
‘I’ve been a subscriber for a few years and enjoy each edition of the quarterly: many articles remind me of my past reading, while others encourage me to search out something I may have missed when it first appeared. I also love the whole physical feel and appearance of the journal; it is a pleasure to read.’
With Father’s Day approaching we thought some of you may appreciate a few present ideas for the father figures in your lives. All presents can be wrapped in handsome brown paper and tied up with a suave and understated cream ribbon and sent off to the recipient, or to you to hand over in person, in good time for Sunday 16 June. Gifts may be sent all over the world and should arrive at far-flung destinations in good time but if you’re worried about delivery times, you can always request an e-mailable or printable gift card during the checkout process to tide you over.
‘My husband bought me a subscription to Slightly Foxed for Christmas. I absolutely love everything about it. How could I not, when my first issue included three (three!) of my favourite books? The Quincunx, The Uncommon Reader, and the under-rated Barnaby Rudge. I’m not sure whether the thing I enjoy most is finding new titles or discovering that some of your contributors are fans of my own discoveries. Due to the podcasts I feel I’m getting to know you all quite well. I particularly liked the feature recently on independent bookshops. As a retired librarian from the humanities department of a major city library, I always valued the opportunities I had to provide a specialist service to readers. Over the past decade the profession has almost disappeared. Your feature gave me hope that just as bookshops are rediscovering their true role, so one day libraries might do the same.’
‘I love your magazine and settle down for a good read when it arrives. The June edition was full of interesting and amusing essays which my friends and I love. Sorry I forgot the time difference between Brisbane Australia and London, so I sent off my subscription while our morning sun is shining into my sitting room on a cold and windy day. Hope you are all fast asleep and have a very good day when you wake up. All the very best and you are keeping up a wonderful standard of writing for us to read.’
I am having another stab at Jane Austen. Friends beg me to keep trying, anxious for me not to miss what they tell me is an unrivalled view of a luminous literary landscape. I have made efforts on and off over the years and never found her to my taste. Somewhere along the line at school I passed through Northanger Abbey without retaining much impression of it. But now I have made a pledge with a friend who works at the Royal Society of Literature. I must endeavour to read some Austen and my friend will attempt to read Wuthering Heights, a book she has heretofore avoided. She suggested I start with Sense and Sensibility, so I did.
Clare Hollingworth lived to the high old age of 105, spending much of her last years in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in her adopted home of Hong Kong. Even at the age of 92 she was said to be prepared to head out to whatever hot-spot her editor might want to send her to. After reading There’s a German Just Behind Me, you’ll rather wish her editor had given her the call.
When I was a young man I was an international runner who held world sprint records and won medals in the European Championships, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games. You would be right in thinking that training, allied with natural ability, had something to do with this, but it was a book, bought when I was 13, that made it all possible. That book changed my life.
‘I was first given a subscription as a present from my son and enjoyed it so much that I extended it to September 2020. I look forward to the magazine which makes me reread old friends. I really enjoy your podcasts (and appreciate the dogs’ interventions as I have two dogs myself, one of whom barked angrily back to the podcast I listened to earlier!) which make me feel I know you personally. I have read and given away several of your beautiful books. They are such lovely things in themselves and I do appreciate having a bookmark built in as postcards and other bookmarks fall out so easily.’
This is the tale of a baby, a book and a candle. The setting is the Sudan, the baby is our first-born, two-month-old Natasha, and the book is a great twentieth-century Italian novel. As for the candle . . . One may as well begin with the baby. Natasha Su-ming Sakina Plowright was born on 22 February 1966 in Omdurman, a stone’s throw from the Mahdi’s tomb, to my wife Poh Sim and me. She weighed 8lbs 6oz and was bright blue. Her nearest neighbour in the nun-run hospital was a Greek grocer’s baby weighing in at over 10lbs. We carried ours home in triumph and a Moses basket to our eccentric, edge-of-desert house, set in a garden full of mongooses.
I first encountered Rosita Forbes atop a camel in the middle of the Rabiana Sand Sea in southern Libya. There was probably no finer way of making this unusual writer’s acquaintance. Here, deep in the Sahara, she was in her element, disguised as an Arab woman and with only a few camels and human companions between her and a nasty, lingering death. In fact it was worse than that. Apart from the natural dangers of the desert, she was passing through the territory of tribesmen who regarded this motley expedition of an Englishwoman and the Egyptian Olympic-fencer-cum-spy-cum-explorer Ahmed Hassanein Bey with profound suspicion, if not downright hostility.
I should read The Evolution Man, he said. He would lend it to me. I had never heard of its author, Roy Lewis, but pieced together some information about him. Born in 1913, educated at King Edward’s School in Birmingham and University College, Oxford, Lewis spent much of his adult life as a journalist working for, among others, the Economist and The Times.
In the kind of house where books are handed down the generations, the chances are that on a spare bedroom bookshelf, squeezed between Guy Mannering and Roses, Their Culture and Management, you will find a copy of one of the eleven novels written by O. Douglas. Take it to bed to read and you will quickly become immersed in the cultured, if circumscribed, Scottish middle-class life of three generations ago. Whether that appeals to you will probably depend both on your attitude to Scotland and Scottishness and on whether you enjoy a well-told if old-fashioned story where only rarely does anything very startling happen.
Unable to pedal but still able to walk, I had found inspiration in a battered copy of Eight Feet in the Andes wedged between the clothes and the spare tubes in my pannier. In the early 1980s, its author Dervla Murphy flew to Cajamarca in Peru with her 9-year-old daughter Rachel. Already a veteran of odysseys on foot, mule, donkey and bicycle, the Irish travel writer needed no justification for what came next. Putting the local grapevine to good use, she and Rachel purchased a lively young mule named Juana . . .
Until I read the bit in Rebecca West’s This Real Night where one of the main characters dies, I’d never cried properly on a plane. I’ll admit to a bit of panicky sobbing during a bout of bad turbulence, but never before had I abandoned myself to full-on, uncontrollable weeping at 33,000 feet. I won’t tell you which of the characters dies, because that would be a cruel spoiler, and I am hoping to persuade you to spend time with this strange, wonderful trilogy and the eccentric Aubrey family who live in its pages. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because This Real Night is the second book in the series and – like the unfinished third, Cousin Rosamund – was published posthumously (1984 and 1985 respectively).
Among the books I’d assembled to help steer me through the boundless subject of trees and woodlands for a recent commission, H. E. Bates’s Through the Woods – a month-by-month account of a small copse in Kent – looked unassuming. Recommended via some unnerving algorithm of online commerce, it sat for many weeks among the accumulating pile beneath my desk. When at last I glanced through it, however, one passage brought it suddenly alive. . .
For Meades is not a ‘television presenter’ at all, but rather an author who occasionally makes television programmes. His considerable written oeuvre includes fiction, memoir, reportage, cultural history, literary criticism and even a highly idiosyncratic cookbook. His specialist subject, however, is place.
Australia was born as a jail. Not until well into the eighteenth century was Europe aware of the place, and even then nobody could see much use for it. But the British, who claimed it, had serious problems at home, principal among them being an apparent crime wave that had generated an unmanageable volume of convicts.
In Nabokov’s novel The Gift (1938) the young poet Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev is solitary and gifted. A virtuoso of perception, he sees around him many small, delightful details – a shopkeeper’s pumpkincoloured bald spot; an iridescent oil slick on a road with a plume-like twist, asphalt’s parakeet – that others around him miss.
Many of you will already be acquainted with Clarence Threepwood, 9th Earl of Emsworth. You will know that in a life buffeted by bossy and opinionated women the Earl’s greatest consolation is his prizewinning Berkshire sow, the Empress of Blandings. P. G. Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth is a connoisseur of pigs and his favourite book, possibly the only one he ever reads, is The Care of the Pig by Augustus Whiffle.
A Jane Grigson quotation sits on my desk. It’s written on a scrappy Post-it note; the glue on the back has picked up dust and a stray piece of cotton. It wasn’t meant to become a permanent feature, rather a scribble to remind myself to write the line somewhere more lasting, but I can’t quite bring myself to throw it away. It reads: ‘Anyone who likes to eat, can soon learn to cook well.’
Love and War in the Apennines is a book of romantic escape, overseen by the suffering of war, which shows how it ripples out across society and into fragile human lives.
The self-effacing Helene would doubtless be astounded that her little 84 is now considered a classic. I can just picture that look of incredulity, and hear that throaty laugh.
‘My order of a set of Ronald Welch novels arrived safely. Thank you for bringing them back into print, for the outstanding quality of your books, and the prompt handling and careful packaging of my order. You have a very satisfied customer, and I’ll be back for more!’
‘Thrilled to receive the Summer issue – the picture on the front conjures up everything that’s special about summer and summer reading – and the contents don’t disappoint, either! I’m saving my copy for our annual retreat to Grasmere next month – sadly no foxes in the garden of our rented cottage near the Lake, but there are red squirrels! I’m also looking forward to Love and War in the Apennines, having spent a walking holiday in that area some years ago. There always seems to be at least one piece with personal resonance, not to mention ideas for gifts and future reading.’
‘I would love to pop into Hoxton Square, sit at your kitchen table, and talk about books. Unfortunately, that is difficult because I live in Colorado. However, your monthly podcasts are the next best thing. I enjoy them so much and feel like all of you are becoming good friends. I look forward to your ‘visit’ in June.’
We’re delighted to let you know that the Summer issue of Slightly Foxed (No. 62) left the printing press at Smith Settle yesterday and will start to arrive with readers in the UK from today and elsewhere over the next few weeks. It ranges far and wide in the usual eclectic manner. With it, as usual, you’ll find a copy of our latest Readers’ Catalogue, detailing new books, our backlist, books featured in the latest issue of the quarterly, recommended seasonal reading and other offers and bundles. We do hope you’ll enjoy the new issue of the quarterly, wherever in the world you are. If you are on a repeat order to receive each limited-edition memoir each quarter, your usual hand-numbered copy of Love and War in the Apennines will be with you very soon. We shall look forward to the usual flurry of emails, letters, postcards, telephone calls and visits that the turn of the new quarter brings – hearing from you all is one of the nicest parts of the job.
‘I’m so enjoying the SF podcasts. As someone living on their own there is something very comforting about pouring a glass of wine and listening to sparkling people eclectically wandering through their collective experiences, memories and literary wisdom. A brilliant idea.’
‘I have been listening to your podcast with delight. It has been an entertaining change from the usual sensationalism. It’s great fun, like sitting with an erudite friend but not needing to contribute yourself. What could be better?’
Gail, Steph and Anna go behind the scenes with booksellers Brett Wolstencroft of Daunt Books and Kathleen Smith of Topping & Co. Bath to talk about the reality and romance of life running two of the country’s finest bookshops. Andrew Hawkins recounts the tale of a London publisher who tried his hand at repping and ended up in a spot of bother with a drunken poet in Fife, and there’s the usual round-up of recommended reading and news from Hoxton Square.
As regular readers know, each issue of the magazine itself ranges far and wide across all sorts of books and subjects – from non-fiction, fiction, poetry, biography, memoir, guides and even, once, a manual for operating a British Seagull Co. outboard motor but as our newsletters have been rather more non-fiction focused of late, we thought it was high time we shared a recommendation for fiction. So, in this selected article from the archives, we’re dancing back to Issue 35 (Autumn 2012) with Linda Leatherbarrow on the novels of Edna O’Brien.
The leitmotiv of The Quincunx is the interplay of Chance and Design – do we perceive Design in our lives, or merely impose it? – underscored by the recurrence of those Dickensian coincidences that Dickens’s detractors so often deride as ‘contrived’, yet which occur in real life every day, but the foundational theme is greed: how it twists, degrades and ultimately destroys everything it touches, even the innocent, and how it so clouds the minds of men that they come to see their most heinous acts through an indestructible rose-coloured glass of self-justification. Like so much of Dickens, it is a cautionary tale.
‘I wish you were all sitting round my table! I am sure you would be the best sort of visitors, and far and away the most interesting. Thank you for another super podcast, looking forward to the next one.’
‘Wonderful podcast! I found the bit about Edward Lear very touching and sad. How biographies reveal the hidden lives of others – we often cannot guess the inner battles our fellow humans face. Now off to read the SF essay about Lear… Thank you for your podcast; it’s a real listening pleasure!’
‘Hopefully you never tire of accolades from first time readers of SF quarterly? What an eclectic delight, even for those of us with a limited literary background. The review of In Hazard was bursting with insight, a compelling enthusiasm and written by a ‘non-professional’ – I hesitate to use ‘amateur’ – was the contributor ever a teacher/lecturer of English? As a runner- up I can only assume the competition winner was particularly outstanding? The illustrations are a delightful ‘bonus’, looking at the covers of back editions they are an excellent showcase of often overlooked artists’ work. By coincidence the July 2018 cover reflected my own garden at that time, for the first time, drifts of Myosotis arvensis injected a flush of hazy blue with a rash of random, rogue Digitalis. If you had not already found a mischievous, vulpine icon (an escapee from Richard Hughes attic perhaps) that image may have been a charming alternative; as it would have reflected at least part of a SF mission statement? Posy Fallowfield’s final assurance echoing the same sentiment. Your online newsletters and podcasts are greatly appreciated, keep up the good work – a world without real publications ‘to have and to hold’ will be immeasurably poorer!’
‘Really enjoyed your sixth podcast and delighted that Gail’s recommendation is yet another of my favourites! I think she recommended A Gentleman in Moscow last month, which I was riveted by as an audio book on a long drive – just loved it! And I’ve been raving about Tim Pears’ trilogy ever since I read The Horseman a year or so ago. Three of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in ages. The trouble with Slightly Foxed is that it brings up so many titles which appeal to me that I shall now have to live until I’m about 120 just to fit in all this reading! Keep them coming, though. Such treats in store.’
‘I discovered your world of Slightly Foxed at the start of my day today through an Instagram advert about your podcast. I instantly downloaded all six episodes and devoured the first two on my way to work this morning. It was incredibly charming, warm and comforting. I’ve never heard of a bookish podcast quite like this and I was utterly drawn in by the language and the feeling that I too, was sat around the kitchen table surrounded by tombs of musty books. Anyway, I just wanted to say that for an Asian Muslim girl in the Northern town of Bradford, it’s incredible to gain such a wondrous insight into a world I only dream to work in. So thank you! (I’m going to purchase your latest issue so I can properly delve myself in the Slightly Foxed world.)’
‘Thank you for finding the second-hand copy of The Spoken Word and sending it to me. It arrived this morning and acted as a 57th wedding anniversary gift for my husband, who had shown great interest in it when I showed him the relevant article in Slightly Foxed. He has read through it already and I’ve had a glance, and I’m sure it will provide much discussion and some hilarity between us. (He is a confirmed pedant.)’
‘Congratulations, I think the podcast is fantastic. I can’t wait for the next one. Well done to all at Slightly Foxed.’
Easter greetings from Hoxton Square where the office foxes are feeling slightly guilty but mostly delighted at the prospect of having four days off, with little to do but lounge around and read, possibly with a glass of something cold in hand if the weather forecast for England is to be believed.
Meantime we’ll leave you to enjoy this suitably seasonal extract from John Moore’s Brensham Village, introduced by Sue Gee . . .
‘I have longed to be a member of Slightly Foxed but have always been held back by the poor exchange rate of the Canadian Dollar. But, having listened to the podcast episodes repeatedly whenever I am in need of a kitchen table book talk (probably too many times to admit, though I have decided to stop when I know them off by heart) I felt I needed to take the plunge. Thank you again.’
‘Loving the podcasts. Spent evening alone in kitchen, drinking wine and catching up with them. Bliss.’
‘I could listen to your podcasts all day. They are soothing and stimulating at the same time.’
‘I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the podcast – full of useful recommendations and links. Beautifully produced – music, readings and literary gossip. I am going to revisit podcasts 1 to 4 now to make sure I have not missed anything. Please continue to make them as well as the quarterlies.’
Gail, Hazel, Jennie and host Philippa are joined at the table by eminent biographer Adam Sisman to discuss the delicate business of delving into the lives of others – warts and all or, sometimes, all warts no all. The actor Nigel Anthony lends his voice to Edward Lear’s surreal verbal contortions, unearthing the deep sorrow that hid beneath the nonsense.
Ian Corfe-Stephens is an illustrator, graphic designer and printmaker whose woodcuts have featured in several issues of Slightly Foxed. Ian has been engraving since 1961 mainly concentrating on fine art prints of his home territory of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. ‘My…
How James Morris finally became Jan is an extraordinary story, and her memoir Conundrum is a gripping and thought-provoking read which casts fascinating light on the fevered debates of today. Read on for an extract from Chapter 15 where we join James at his beloved home Trefan in Wales where he spends one last summer living as a man before heading for Casablanca to meet the magician . . .
‘. . . I’m also delighting in your podcasts. As it happens, I discovered podcasts last fall and was thrilled that your first episode coincided with my subscription order. The stars were aligned! It’s life-affirming to hear you discuss your focus on quality over bling (while in the background dogs bark and builders build). The most recent one about reprints is my favourite so far. So, I write to say thank you to all of you for producing a wonderful publication and keeping me sane during the tempests of life. Best wishes from a smiling Canadian!’
‘Slightly Foxed has a mysterious quality of lifting spirits, making you read with bizarre faces (mouth open/chuckling/eyebrows doing a thing) because you are always lost in the essays and of course, it makes you feel as satisfied as a scrumptious five course meal.’
‘The quarterly itself is a joy and always sends me scurrying to my bookshelves to see if I just might have a copy of a long-forgotten book. . . ’
‘I have been hugely impressed with you and all your enterprises ever since I first came across you many years ago. I am even more impressed to receive this morning beautifully bound copies of The Little Grey Men and Down the Bright Stream, which I ordered only a few days ago. My godmother gave me the first on my eleventh birthday and now I give these two to my grand-daughter, hoping she will love them as much as I did. The illustrations are nostalgically perfect.’
‘Congratulations on the accolade for your podcast from The Sunday Times – very well deserved!’
‘The relatively new podcast by Slightly Foxed is such a joy to listen to – the absolute cosiest podcast out there, I’m sure!’
‘The podcasts are wonderful and really interesting, including aspects about the publishing business. Only criticism of the latest one is that I missed the dogs barking in the background!’
‘Just thought you would like to know that I have listened to the latest edition of the podcast while 6 children are having a nerf gun battle over the entire area of my house. Thank you for giving me a glance into a civilised, bullet-free world for half an hour. Back into the fray now with my head full of pyramids and books to order… Although better check under my sofa for hidden eggs first. Thanks again for such sage advice.’
‘The Slightly Foxed podcast is a delight! I challenge anyone to not be inspired to pick up a book after listening to it.’
‘I did so enjoy the last podcast and I absolutely loved A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles which was recommended by one of you, can’t now remember which! I had it as a talking book on a long drive recently and was completely absorbed, couldn’t stop driving, which must be the moving version of “couldn’t put it down”!’
‘Greetings all the way from Victoria, British Columbia! I’m a new subscriber and received my second volume in the mail yesterday (great excitement!). Thanks to a book blog I follow, your quarterly has been on my radar for a couple of years. Last November, while wading through a particularly stressful time, I decided to treat myself to a subscription and a pair of Danish slippers. I’m happy to say neither has disappointed! Your approach to life, reading and books has been a soothing balm and feeds my soul. Thank you! I also ordered a calendar which I hung in my office. Its whimsy and elegance propel me through my days of paperwork and problem-solving. I’m also delighting in your podcasts. As it happens, I discovered podcasts last fall and was thrilled that your first episode coincided with my subscription order. The stars were aligned! It’s life-affirming to hear you discuss your focus on quality over bling (while in the background dogs bark and builders build). The most recent one about reprints is my favourite so far. So, I write to say thank you to all of you for producing a wonderful publication and keeping me sane during the tempests of life. Best wishes from a smiling Canadian!’
‘I am very impressed by the speedy delivery of my order. I bought myself The Young Ardizzone from The Book Room at Wyken Vineyards, which I love to visit when I stay with my daughter in Suffolk. The look and feel of the edition was so special that I ordered it to send to my son. Thank you for producing such beautiful books.’
‘Dear Reader, you may take it from me, that however hard you try – or don’t try; whatever you do – or don’t do; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; every way and every day:
THE PARENT IS ALWAYS WRONG
So it is no good bothering about it. When the little pests grow up they will certainly tell you exactly what you did wrong in their case. But, never mind; they will be just as wrong themselves in their turn. So take things easily; and above all, eschew good intentions . . .’
With Mothering Sunday fast approaching we thought our newsletter readers might appreciate a little instruction in the art of parenting from the ever-charming Period Piece by Gwen Raverat.
‘I felt I had to get in touch to thank you, not just for the prompt dispatch of books I ordered, but for your kindness and thoughtfulness in sending the lovely Slightly Foxed cards along with the two volumes of E.H. Shepard’s memoirs. My friend Christine loves reading and drawing so it goes without saying that she was absolutely delighted with her 70th birthday gift!’
‘I’m a new subscriber and would like to say how much I enjoy both the quarterly and the podcast. Wonderful writing and great conversation – am so glad to have found you! With good wishes and appreciation for all you do’
‘Just to say thank you for such a warm welcome to the Slightly Foxed family. Love the quarterly. Was a bit worried would have to eke it out but there are the wonderful podcasts and back issues to dip into too. A peaceful, cosy treat from the stresses of the world with lots of ideas for good books. Congratulations all.’
‘Thank you very much indeed for the fifth Slightly Foxed podcast which I have enjoyed instead of doing some urgent admin . . . much more fun! I always listen to it several times, and seem to hear more each time.’
‘I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your most recent Podcast. I am recuperating from major surgery, and I have to admit this is the first podcast of any kind I have ever listened to. What fun to feel we are sitting round your table. Has my coffee mug left a ring? I particularly enjoyed the comments on the Virago Modern Classics. It took me back to my bookselling days when the list was first launched. Since you published my little piece about Harrods Library (SF 32) I have become addicted to your wonderful quarterly, and it is always a joy to hear it arrive on the mat. Vivat Slightly Foxed’
‘My favourite podcasts are the Slightly Foxed podcast, Tea or Books?, Tea & Tattle and Hashtag Authentic’
‘I’m loving the podcasts – great to have such insights into the workings of SF. And, of course, I am still so in love with SF itself – it is an absolute joy.’
‘Very much enjoying these podcasts. And it’s OK to hear the dogs contributing their comments to the conversation. And Country Boy, it ranks as my favorite SF Edition book. Thanks to everyone.’
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.
‘I have fallen in love with your podcast and many of the books that you recommend. I need to stop listening however because my list of what I’d like to read only grows and grows! Thank you for being a treasure!’
‘I am looking forward to the next podcast, they are not only interesting in their own right but it makes me feel I am actually in Hoxton . . . Keep ‘poding’.’
‘I saw an elderly gentleman reading it on the train, it looked so enticing. He has been reading since the first edition and was full of praise. I had to subscribe and see for myself!’
‘I have just finished listening to the most recent podcast and my only disappointment is that it is not three times as long. It is an absolute pleasure and I look forward to the 15th of every month now.’
‘Thank you very much for the beautiful Slightly Foxed edition of BB’s Brendon Chase, which arrived safely last Saturday. It is a wonderful book – certainly ‘a very good read’. Thank you and all at Slightly Foxed for the marvelous periodical and other publications published and sold by you – I enjoy them.’
‘I am rarely moved to write about such matters. But as a first-year subscriber to Slightly Foxed I have come to appreciate greatly the quarterly magazine, which reveals pleasures I would almost certainly have missed otherwise. The winter issue introduced me to two delights: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights, both of which I have since enjoyed immensely. So thank you for your introduction to them. They have each, in their different ways, been revelatory.’
‘I wish I were a millionaire – I would buy subscriptions for all my friends! One of the great delights of Slightly Foxed is the high production values you exert-paper, printing, magnificent illustrations. It always gives me a thrill of pleasure when each issue arrives-such a beautiful object in a world of plastic and IT!’
This independent bookshop is settled between the river and Richmond Green in leafy Richmond-Upon-Thames. The shop appears small from the outside but, within its doors, the bookshelves stretch far and are full of interesting reading. We spoke to bookseller Helena Caletta about life in the bookshop on this bend of the river Thames.
We’re delighted to report that the Spring issue of Slightly Foxed (No. 61) has left the printing press at Smith Settle. It ranges far and wide in the usual eclectic manner, and we do hope it will provide plenty of recommendations for reading off the beaten track. With it, as usual, you’ll find a copy of our latest Readers’ Catalogue, detailing new books, our backlist, books featured in the latest issue of the quarterly, recommended reading and other offers and bundles . . .
‘I have received my Spring issue and read it from cover to cover in one sitting! Pure unadulterated pleasure. From that I moved on to one of my purchases Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking, finishing it in a day! What an amazing insight into a foreign student’s life in China in 1975. The book had just the right balance of detail and humour. Such an easy but enriching read. I have moved on to Giving up the Ghost and am thoroughly absorbed in it.’
I first met Jan Morris in the offices of the publisher Random House in New York in the early 1980s. I was a junior editor there, and was invited to meet someone I considered to be one of the most intriguing writers I had read. This was nothing more than a handshake and an acknowledgement of our shared Britishness in New York. But I was immediately struck by Jan’s warmth and affability, qualities that are key to her genius for talking to people and drawing stories from them. (For while Jan is less of an extrovert in person than in her writings, and indeed in some ways is quite reserved, she nonetheless possesses a remarkable ability, surely learned in the world of journalism, to nose out a story.)
The library at Fonthill Preparatory School was just what I imagined a Gentlemen’s Club to be like: shiny brown leather armchairs with velvet cushions, long oak tables, panelled walls, a coal fire in the corner, and windows looking on to the branches of an enormous beech tree. And, of course, books. It was there that I came to know the schoolboy classics of the time: the adventures of Biggles, the misadventures of William, and the voyages of the Swallows and the Amazons.
In Hazard is an extraordinary read. It resembles The Human Predicament in mixing fiction with fact, but here the ‘fact’ is not a devastating political movement which took years to grow, but a devastating meteorological event which took place within a week. In November 1932 the steamship Phemius was sucked into a Caribbean hurricane and tested to the limits, yet somehow she and all her crew survived. The owner of the shipping line to which Phemius belonged approached Hughes and suggested he record the dramatic story. Hughes agreed to describe the storm and its effects on the ship as accurately as he could, with the proviso that he would invent a fictitious captain and crew . . .
I cannot now remember when I first read Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler (1947). My memory is confused by the fact that I knew the author in old age and was to become his biographer; Trevor-Roper himself told me about the extraordinary circumstances in which he had come to write the book. In September 1945 he had been awaiting discharge from the army so that he could resume his pre-war role as an Oxford don, when he was asked to undertake an urgent investigation into the fate of the Führer.
As Muriel Spark had done before me I insisted that ‘if you’re a driver, you drive’ – that I would publish what I liked, and that the lady who wrote from the South of France complaining that the contents of the magazine were ‘sheer drivel that is an insult to the intelligence’ must simply be ignored. I clung on for five years, introducing a number of then young poets now celebrated. I can scarcely believe that I did all that work without a salary – editors of the magazine had never been paid, and I didn’t learn until years later that on my appointment the Arts Council had a grant of £500 a year for the Editor, linked to £1,000 for the General Secretary – conditional on the secretary not being Robert Armstrong. The offer was naturally refused. I was awarded a small ‘honorarium’ for the last two years – less than I could have earned by writing one sixty-minute radio feature.
In forty years MacLeod produced just sixteen short stories, later collected in Island (2002), and one not very long novel, the extraordinary No Great Mischief (1999). Notoriously, he wrote at glacial speed, toiling over each sentence by hand until its shape and heft and tune were exactly so. You could read the life’s work in a weekend, but you mustn’t: the stories demand to be savoured slowly, the way they were written. A MacLeod sentence is a tactile thing, with the hard but polished feel of a pebble in the hand. Yet the prose is not ‘writerly’ in any tiresome way: ‘I like to think that I am telling a story rather than writing it,’ MacLeod once said, and his work retains a strong sense of the speaking or even singing voice – of folk tales or Gaelic balladry.
The Nancy Drew mysteries (I didn’t know, then, that ‘mystery’ is what Americans call a detective story) were the first series of books to which I became completely addicted. And, since there were dozens of them, it seemed as if I could never run out – useful, for a child who weekly exhausted his borrowing limit at Dorking Library. My grandfather got into the habit, for a bit, of buying me one a week. Whenever I had a book token, it was into the bookshop at the top of the main street (I can’t for the life of me remember its name) that I would go. Oh! the anticipation of a fresh one, a fresh mystery, smelling of new paperback, picked off the long shelf of Nancy Drew books in the children’s section and taken home in a crisp paper bag.
The Spoken Word, published in 1981, was produced in response to a wave of complaints to the British Broadcasting Corporation about falling standards in spoken English. A new era of broadcasting had begun in the 1970s, as the BBC changed from being the Reithian home of ‘received pronunciation’ to something broader, permitting more regional accents and informal language. Many people felt that the move towards linguistic diversity had gone too far, resulting in what the critic Anne Karpf so eloquently described in 1980 as ‘English as she is murdered on radio’.
In 2016, in a debate organized by the Brontë Society, a panel of four writers discussed the relative merits of Jane Eyre (see SF no. 40) and Charlotte Brontë’s last novel, Villette. When an audience vote was taken, the earlier and better-known book won, but only by a small majority; the two writers defending Villette had been eloquent in its praise. As one of them said, you often come to appreciate it later in life. If Jane Eyre is Pride and Prejudice, Villette is Persuasion.
When I first started working at the House of Commons, back in 2001, Philip Hensher was still discussed in dark tones by my colleagues. He was the only employee in living memory to have been sacked. Five years before, he had written Kitchen Venom, a novel set in the Clerks’ Department where we worked, about John, a secretly gay, hunchbacked senior clerk who spends his workday afternoons sneaking off to see a beautiful Italian rent boy in Earls Court.
You can almost smell the sylvan air, and this is one of Thomas’s attractions. Born in the suburbs, his love of nature drove his devout wish to escape the noise and chaos of London. Like him, I have moved to the sticks and I feel he is speaking for me when he writes: Many days in London have no weather. We are aware only that it is hot or cold, dry or wet; that we are in or out of doors; that we are at ease or not. But Thomas’s writing is more than pastoral escapism. He often turns his retreat to the country into an assessment of himself and this is where In Pursuit of Spring becomes spooky, funny and also strangely wise…
My Cambridge tutor was bubbling over with pleasure one morning in 1962 after reading Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal, the one she kept between 1800 and 1803 when living with her poet brother William at Dove Cottage in the Lake District. What he had been particularly taken with was something she wrote on 14 May 1802 when the two had been walking in the woods alongside Grasmere: ‘William teased himself with seeking an epithet for the Cuckow.’ I never forgot this slightly comical picture of the creative process, but it was almost thirty years before I came to read her journal myself when doing a book on Coleridge among the lakes and mountains.
Brimming. That was how I spent my first weeks in Paris. Brimming with tears at the smallest setback. For Nancy Mitford’s Northey in Don’t Tell Alfred, dispatched to Paris to be secretary to Fanny Wincham, the new Madame l’Ambassadrice at the British Embassy, it is the ‘cruel food’ of France that sets her off. Beef consommé. Brimming. Lobster. Brimming. Foie gras. Brimming. ‘A Frenchman on board told me what they do to sweet geese for pâté de foie gras,’ says Northey at dinner on her first night at the Ambassador’s Residence. ‘Very wrong and stupid of him,’ says Fanny.
Colin Watson was born in 1920. At the age of 17 he was appointed as a junior reporter on a Boston newspaper, and he spent his working life in Lincolnshire, latterly writing editorials for a chain of news-papers. He was a member of the Detection Club of Great Britain and he won the CWA Silver Dagger twice. In his photos, bespectacled, moustached, he looks like one of his own creations, a quiet, reserved Englishman, and by all accounts that is what he was. Who knew that he could see, under the bland surface of a quiet country town, the joyous anarchy of the ordinary citizen’s life? And if he couldn’t see it, he could invent it, and describe it in what must be some of the most elegant language of any crime novel.
Kristin Lavransdatter is a love story – but a masterly one that begins, in the first book of the trilogy, with Kristin swiftly breaking her society’s norms of patriarchy, duty and honour in order to give herself over to erotic passion. Undset viewed eroticism – a desire so profound that life would be intolerable if it were not satisfied – as part of the spiritual sphere. Kristin falls, in every way, for the handsome but clearly unsuitable Erlend Nikulaussøn, although her father has already pledged her to the thoroughly decent Simon Darre. When the wedding between Kristin and Erlend is finally allowed to happen, at the end of the first book, it is an excruciating affair, the bridal crown weighing so heavily on Kristin’s head that she can hardly sit upright at the banquet.
‘The Connoisseur of Harris’ was Hugh Kingsmill. In 1919 he published a novel called The Will to Love which he had written in a prisoner-of-war camp. Harris appears in it as Ralph Parker, a man whose friendship ‘was a craving for an audience, his love, lust in fancy dress’. Yet ‘in the ruins of his nature, crushed but not extinct, something genuine and noble struggled to express itself ’. Harris was in his seventies when he died in the summer of 1931 and Kingsmill’s biography of him was published the following year. They had known each other for twenty years and the book was one of those Lives that contain two main characters: the subject and the writer.
As I remember it, Vole was already up and running when Lewis Thomas arose in our midst like some ecological genie, a combination of gentle evangelist and stand-up comedian. It was 1977, and Richard Boston, founder of the magazine, arrived at an early editorial gathering bearing a copy of Thomas’s book The Lives of a Cell, with the clear message that it was required reading. It had recently been awarded, unprecedentedly, two US National Book Awards, one in the Arts category, the other in Science, and been described in The New Yorker as a ‘shimmering vision’.
Faith Chevannes is from the Tamar valley on the Devon and Cornwall border. Her drypoint prints and mixed media pieces are inspired by the spectacular landscape around her and reflect its ever-changing seasons, its wildlife and its ancient farming cycles.
As many of you will already have gathered, if only from the discreet note on the contents page of the winter issue, this spring we’ve embarked on a new project, the Slightly Foxed podcast. Your reaction to this may possibly…
We are delighted to announce that the winner of the Biographers’ Club Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2018 is Bart van Es for The Cut Out Girl.
‘I have just finished A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins. I bought it from you a couple of weeks ago and have cherished every single page from the start. It is a charming, evocative and wistful narrative, forming such a well of sympathy with the characters that I was quite unnerved at the end with Tante Yvonne’s demise. Books like this create strong and memorable images in mind and memory, evoking yearnings and emotions. It’s been a wonderful few days sinking into this beautiful little book and being cosseted with each turn of the page. This the third SFP book I own. In themselves, they are a perfect shape and size. Design and layout are excellent, illustrations delightful. It’s a joy simply to look at them with their neat little format and eye-soothing cream colour.’
In Issue 60 Alan Bradley explored ‘literary criticism, character sketches and the byways of reading’ in Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader. His article was illustrated with this fine bookish fellow by Gwen Raverat, which was originally produced as a decoration…
‘I listen to so many Podcasts but these I can’t live without: Futility Closet, the Slightly Foxed podcast, Astonishing Legends and Judge John Hodgman. With a good podcast, you begin to feel you really know the hosts. They are friends you have over for dinner and play board games with.’
‘Listening to the first two podcasts saved my sanity on a very long car trip from Virginia to Texas here in the states. The podcasts made me eagerly anticipate the long winter evenings in the new year with newly discovered books. Wonderful podcasts and I can’t wait to hear more.’
‘Episode 4 of your podcast has turned me into an addict; very, very interesting and you all sound so nice – a counter-blast against the monstrous regiment of politicians we endure every day . . . Very best to you all and of course to the dogs.’
‘I love good reading and a fine use of language, so when I discovered SF, I was immediately enchanted and ordered a sample issue. I’ve read half of issue 60 and I’m a convert. So pleased to announce that I’ve ordered a subscription and a copy of Drawn from Memory and Drawn from Life. Thank you for your excellent work!’
‘I have only just managed to listen to episode 4 of the podcast as I moved house 3 weeks ago. I have been working out where to put my books, which involves difficult decisions. All my working life was spent with books (libraries, retail and library supply) so you might say they are an obsession. Thank you for your journal and the podcasts, both of which I love.’
Gail, Hazel and Jennie talk to the artist and illustrator (and master of pastiche) David Eccles about the craft of marrying image and text. The actress Petra Markham takes to the airwaves with Posy Simmonds, and the printmaker Angie Lewin recalls her experience of being commissioned for a Slightly Foxed cover.
‘I just wanted to say how very much I’m enjoying your podcast. What a wonderful idea and so interesting to hear how SF began, too. I’m sure many others have said this, but it really is like sitting around a big table with a group of friends having a chat.’
‘I’m really enjoying the podcasts. An oasis of civilized peace in a world that has gone raving mad.’
We’re down to our last binders’ parcel of Slightly Foxed Edition No. 22, Country Boy. Richard Hillyer was the pseudonym used by Charles Stranks, a farmworker’s son who grew up in great poverty in a remote Buckinghamshire village in the years before the First World War. Hillyer describes how, against all the odds, he discovers a love of reading, manages to educate himself and get to university. Country Boy has been a firm favourite with readers over the years, and copies of our handsome edition have been steadily slipping off the shelves without fanfare. Now, as it nears the end of its time on the SF list, we thought we’d send if off in style with an extract . . .
‘Not just one of the finest publications for book lovers I’ve ever come across, Slightly Foxed doubles down with friendly people answering the phone and outstanding service. So happy to have renewed my subscription for another two years today!’
‘I must tell you that I was very late for work today having discovered at breakfast time that I didn’t finish the latest issue of Slightly Foxed after all. Eventually I looked up at the clock and it was already gone nine. Fortunately, I work flexible hours. Thank you for such a wonderful, beguiling periodical.’
‘I’m a newish subscriber and have just spent a very happy 30 minutes in the company of Gail, Hazel and Steph around their kitchen table listening to how Slightly Foxed started. I’m not usually a podcast person but this is so different and so delightful it’s like being an invisible guest in someone else’s home. It’s so much more fun than reading book reviews onscreen and fascinating to hear what each of you is currently reading. I shall become an avid and regular listener to the podcasts and I’m looking forward to the next one already.’
We were very sorry to hear news of the editor, writer and publisher Diana Athill OBE’s death last week, at the extremely grand age of 101. Diana was a source of great inspiration to all of us here at SF and her wonderful memoir Stet is practically required reading for new staff. If you haven’t yet done so, you can listen to Hazel talking about Diana and the art of editing in the latest episode of the Slightly Foxed Podcast.
‘Absolutely loving the podcasts. More, more, please!’
‘I’m over the moon, pleased as punch and downright delighted that my book has been shortlisted. It’s a terrific honour.’
‘I am honoured and delighted that A Spy Named Orphan has been chosen for the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2018, not least because of the brilliant, fascinating and varied company it keeps on the shortlist.’
‘I’m hugely happy to be on the shortlist. Many of the previous winners are books I’m familiar with and love, so it’s exciting to be (sort of) in their company. I can only say “thank you!” to the judges and to the Biographers’ Club.’
‘I’m delighted to be shortlisted by such a distinguished set of judges, and especially for the Biographers Club, who keep our genre thriving despite the pressures exerted by changes in literary fashion, publishing and bookselling.’
‘To all at Slightly Foxed, Today, 21st January 2019, is apparently ‘Blue Monday’, considered, by some, to be the most depressing day of the year. Well, I find that I must disagree with this nomenclature . . . ’
‘I have just listened to your podcast! Well done, it’s wonderful.’
‘Thank you so much for podcast episode 3 – your podcasts gather strength with each edition. Love hearing your voices, the sound effects too, and all the booksy news. A great treat and perfect to listen to while doing the physio’s exercises for a bad back – positively curative!’
‘I received the mailing with my new membership card, and the lovely bookplate reproductions and bookmark. Many thanks for taking the trouble to do that. Slightly Foxed customer service is outstanding! I feel I have a relationship with you, although we are an ocean away and have not met in person.’
‘Hi Ladies, I don’t listen to many podcasts but really enjoyed Stet and the books discussed as well as editing of which I do some in a slightly amateurish way. I wonder if you are considering publishing Diana Athill’s Stet – I’d certainly buy it! Thank you for your lovely literary ideas.’
‘I’ve just listened to episode 3 and thoroughly enjoyed it. All the contributors wear their considerable learning very lightly which adds to both the listening pleasure and also the learning process of the listener! I was delighted to hear that Slightly Foxed will be republishing Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman novels. I think I’ve read them all but will make a point of buying what will undoubtedly be wonderful new editions.’
‘I wanted to relay to you, and to the rest of the team, how much I enjoyed the recent episode (3) of the SF podcast. As a ‘new’ writer having recently gone through the experience of a book being edited, getting to hear from the editor’s perspective has been so helpful. It’s a really interesting subject and the episode handled it wonderfully.’
‘I just wanted to drop you a note to thank you for the prompt shipment of the lovely set of Ronald Welch books. They’re simply gorgeous, and they make me want to ditch my university teaching for a few weeks to dive into them all. And thank you for all that you continue to do. The podcast is a delight to listen to on the way to and from campus, and all of you gave me and my husband a lovely afternoon of tea and conversation at Hoxton Square in the summer of 2017.’
‘Hello Foxes, I’ve just listened to your latest podcast in the bookshop here (Oh, the joys of a quiet January Tuesday where even the bell on the door stays mute long enough to hear (most of) the podcast). Anyway, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed it. That’s all. Very best wishes.’
‘I’ve just listened to the third of your excellent series of podcasts and thought I would just send this email to congratulate you on its production. I’ve enjoyed each episode but found episode 3 particularly interesting. As a boy, I wasn’t encouraged to read Beatrix Potter and have so far read only the recently published Tale of Kitty in Boots: Tod and Brock sound very much like villains of the old school and bring to mind a number of people I’ve represented in court over the years. The insight into the editing process was fascinating too.’
Gail, Hazel and Anna discuss the art of editing with author and creative writing teacher Sue Gee, and Helen Bourne delves into the dark side of Beatrix Potter.
‘Just to let you know that I tuned in to my first Slightly Foxed Podcast this afternoon and what a delight it was to hear the voices and reflect on SF’s beginnings. All I can say is “Well done” for providing a homely and approachable organisation. Your conversation about children’s books came home; I regularly re-read old copies by Alan Garner and Rosemary Sutcliffe. I also have many faded and rather worn books, each of which gives me pure joy when I handle them. Having also listened to the quote regarding books, bookcases and collecting, I thought I’d show some of mine containing, amongst the seeming mayhem, my first remembered book that my father bought me, a Ladybird Julius Caesar. Max the cat likes to sit near them all. Thank you again.’
Slightly Foxed is looking for a friendly, enthusiastic person to join their London office on a full-time basis. The Administrator (Office & Subscriptions) will be responsible for processing subscriptions, packing orders, gift-wrapping, stock management and general day-to-day office administration among other things
We need a lively, well-organized person who enjoys communicating with customers. Slightly Foxed prides itself on its personal, friendly and high-end service so, in this role, you’ll be a very important part of the team.
Chris Wormell never went to art college or had any formal training and is entirely self-taught. Nevertheless, he has become one of the finest illustrators working in Britain today. His illustrations, predominantly wood engravings or linocuts, are timeless, beautiful and inspiring.
Well, this issue is our 60th, and it’s making us feel a bit ruminative – emotional even – remembering the little group (four plus a baby) who sat round Gail’s kitchen table, discussing an idea for a magazine that we weren’t at all sure would work. The baby is at secondary school now and the original four has nearly trebled, if we count all the great people, both full-time and part-time and with ages ranging over six decades, who contribute to the production of Slightly Foxed.
‘Like sitting down with old book-reading friends. What could be better?’
It’s now all hands to the pump for our annual New Year clean. If you’d like to help us clear a few shelves and take the opportunity to stock up on paperbacks, notebooks, back issues or Carey Novels we’d be most grateful . . .
Slightly Foxed and the Biographers’ Club are delighted to announce the shortlist for the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2018. The prize of £2,500 will be awarded on 26 February with a drinks reception at Maggs Bros. on Bedford Square, London.
‘I have rediscovered you! Years ago I was devouring slightly dog-eared Slightly Foxed volumes passed on by a dear friend who subscribed. I recently had a wonderful walk and talk my brother, briefly home from abroad, and we connected over books and learned of our mutual adoration of SF. And he told me of your podcast! I am just so enjoying it. So interesting, relaxing, fun, and well-produced. Currently halfway through episode two, and harbouring delicious anticipation for Ep 3. I really like the piano intro music, too. Just perfect. Well done, and thank you!’ C. Brissenden, US
Luna North trained at the Falmouth School of Art. She now lives in Devon where she specializes in printmaking. The images in her linocuts of native flora and fauna are inspired by the wild landscape around her and are designed and carved in the Romantic tradition. Her work can be seen in galleries throughout the UK and has recently been exhibited in New York.
‘I have enjoyed the podcast, episode 2. It was especially interesting to hear from Frances Wood about the missionary accounts of adventures in China in the last century. After listening to the former head of the Chinese collection at the British Library, I might horrify my family by collecting some of these forgotten stories of lives lived on the edge, and adding them to my already extensive book collection.’
‘Started listening to your podcast . . . it was great to hear where people listen. I have taken on my son’s rabbit (flat changes) . . . the rabbit seems permanent now! Giving the rabbit a run out /cleaning can be boring. So now I have discovered the podcast I can run round the yard with the rabbit with you in my ear!’
‘Mention of your second podcast episode has reminded me that I haven’t yet been in touch to say how very much I enjoyed the first. It was so nice to feel that I was seated at the kitchen table, listening to book talk. It inspired me to pull the first Fox down from the shelf, and Ex Libris, too. As someone who tries to avoid technology out of work I was glad that I only needed to click on the website to listen and didn’t need to download and app or register with anything.’
‘Well, that was terrific! So interesting to hear how you work, to get some in-depth chat on a couple of topics and lots of alluring snippets on many others. The podcast web page is beautifully presented as well.’
‘This is just to say how much I enjoy the SF podcasts. Thank you so much for adding it to my long list of quiet pleasures.’
‘Oh joy, now you are sitting around my kitchen table as well! A masterly development for Slightly Foxed and one that adds another layer of pleasure to your inspirational idea and beautifully produced journals.’
‘Thank you, I got so excited to find you had a podcast. I’m a big podcast fan and often listen while I’m working from my studio in NSW. It’s wonderful to hear the voices behind Slightly Foxed and I loved hearing the dogs in the background too.’
‘Love listening to your first two podcasts. So lovely to meet you all and I look forward very much to your future podcasts. Thank you.’
‘I loved listening to this. Interesting reflections on editing. Remarkable revelations about Beatrix Potter noir. Who had thought of it before? And some recommendations of books to read. Gerontius was quite new to me.’
‘I just loved this podcast! [episode 2] Maybe as much as the first one. Listened to both while walking my dog and picturing you three at the kitchen table.’
‘Thoroughly enjoyed your podcast thus far – love the general chat about books and recommendations but gleaned so much more than I expected as the contributors expanded beyond the books to Chinese paper production, writers’ lives, how books affect individuals personally. Have subscribed via Spotify and can’t wait for the 3rd episode. Thank you.’
‘I do so love the podcasts! I like to listen in bed after reading a little Slightly Foxed, and before turning off the light. You ladies are doing such a wonderful job. I will continue to enjoy!’
‘As to the production of A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book – I must say many thanks. The red ribbon page marker was an unexpected special touch. Only my leather-bound volumes seem to have such a useful device. The paper bookmark was also an added bonus, as was the signed postcard. The volume itself was all that I had expected, and more . . . ’
Gail, Hazel and Jennie talk to Frances Wood, librarian, sinologue and former head of the Chinese Collection at the British Library; Andrew Hawkins recounts the story of the oldest paper in the world; and we find out which books our readers are hoping for this Christmas.
‘Some people are snooty about illustrating grown-up fiction, vapouring on about how their imaginations will generate all the images they need. The riposte to that is Dickens and Phiz, Surtees and Leech, Sherlock Holmes and Sidney Paget. In the past The Folio Society has added to this roll of honour with such achievements as Joan Hassall’s wood engravings for Jane Austen, Simon Brett’s for a gamut running from Keats and Shelley to Legends of the Grail, Charles Keeping’s drawings for the 16-volume Dickens, Edward Bawden’s linocuts for Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Folio threw a lifeline to illustrators as work for advertisers and magazines began to dry up from the 1950s, and it continues to be the one firm regularly commissioning pictures for something other than children’s books.’
Some of my grandfather’s quotations from Dickens were developed and amplified into the form of small dramatic performances in which the whole table took part and gave their allotted responses. There was one special favourite from The Pickwick Papers which went, as…
‘Slightly Foxed really is quite special, and always a pleasure to read; I’m sure it’ll be inspiring some more bookish gifts over the coming years! If I don’t hear from you again this year, many thanks for everything, have a wonderful Christmas, and a very happy New Year.’
‘The E.H. Shepard books have arrived! They are so chock full of illustrations! Wonderful. I wish more of your SFEs had pictures. Love that the covers and endpapers alternate colours. Makes them a subtle matching set. One of your best productions.’
‘After a long career as a Suffolk GP, Dr Philip Rhys Evans may well be astonished to find himself lined up as a surprise literary hit this winter. But a short book compiled by the now-retired doctor with his wife Christine detailing the funny, bizarre and poignant situations he has encountered over his many years in practice is now a novelty Christmas title attracting glowing reviews . . .’
The Living Mountain, thankfully, is a treasure that, rather like the Cairngorms it describes so wondrously, stands alone in space and time. Happening on it at any point in one’s reading life brings unexpected pleasure. It is thanks to Robert Macfarlane, who has written a typically penetrating introduction to a new edition, that the book, first published in 1977 after lying orphaned in a drawer for four decades, is now enjoying a second wind. So much so that the recent, universally glowing accolades even include the claim that this is ‘the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’. For Macfarlane it is ‘one of the two most remarkable twentieth-century British studies of a landscape that I know’. So we are in serious territory here.
How Bennett must have enjoyed writing this book. The Palace setting, with its hierarchies and snobberies and constipated bureaucracy, and the shrewd no-nonsense voice of his central character, allow him to take pot-shots at all his favourite targets: official jargon, literary pretension, slippery politicians, trendy attitudes – and ultimately, perhaps, the infantilizing effects of Monarchy itself, with its suburban lifestyle hidden behind the glittering façade.
Notoriously, Woolf doesn’t write about the women on whom she herself depended for home comforts but, mostly, about those who were educated and wealthy enough to write diaries or letters. But she was very aware of the limitations society forced upon all women, both socially and physically. And how much can be gleaned from letters that will never be written, let alone preserved, in our modern, high-speed age. She was writing at a time when letters were still the main method of communication.
In 1950 guitars were rare in the UK and sales barely touched 5,000, but Elvis, Cliff and British rock ’n’ roll changed all that. In 1957, when Play in a Day was first published, annual UK guitar sales topped a quarter of a million and the number of people wanting to learn the guitar vastly outnumbered those capable of teaching it – a situation well understood by Bert, who wrote in his Introduction that he wanted his book to contain ‘the essential requirements of the lone student without a teacher’. It went straight to the top of the bestseller list and stayed there for several months. With sales to date totalling around 4 million, Play in a Day is the world’s biggest selling guitar tutor and it’s never been out of print.
There are authors’ deaths, announced casually on the radio, that provoke an involuntary cry of loss. The recent death of Sue Grafton, author of the alphabetically themed Kinsey Millhone detective novels, was one such. How could you not mourn a writer with whom you’d kept company – and 25 books – for 36 years? An added sadness was that she would not now complete her task of a book for every letter of the alphabet. We had had Y Is for Yesterday (2017) and awaited, confidently, Z Is for Zero. Except that now it won’t be. ‘In our family’, said one of her daughters, ‘the alphabet now ends with Y.’
Last year I decided that I felt like reading Dickens at Christmas. Resisting the temptation to turn to old and reliable fireside favourites, I alighted instead on Barnaby Rudge. It seemed a choice that would fulfil two purposes: quenching my thirst for some Dickensian delights while teaching me something of an episode about which I wanted to know more. Barnaby Rudge is a historical novel, one of only two such novels Dickens wrote. It was published in 1841 and was the work he planned the longest and most carefully. Yet it is rarely read today and wasn’t very popular when it was published either. One contemporary critic apparently dismissed it as ‘Barnaby Rubbish’.
It is hard to know whether it is the featherlight words of A. A. Milne or the airy ‘decorations’ of E. H. Shepard that everyone has ever since loved the more, so perfect was their partnership . . .
Like Traherne Goudge was an ardent Anglican. But although religion can be an oppressive presence in her adult novels, in her children’s books it manifests itself merely as a sense of embracing safety. One of her obituaries quoted Jane Austen’s famous line from Mansfield Park, ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.’ Her fictional world is devoid of malice, which is why it was such balm to our childish spirits. Loyalty, kindness, affection, the wonder of nature, the smells of good, plain English cooking, a hot bath and clean clothes, the appealing personalities of pets: these are the things she celebrates. In Goudge’s children’s books, to use Louis MacNeice’s phrase, there is ‘sunlight on the garden’ and the equation always comes out.
Alexievich was not interested in conventional responses, the kind of thing people say to journalists when they are shy, afraid of controversy or anxious to please. Since this was Russia, she had also to overcome the inhibitions imposed on her witnesses by a lifetime of subservience to the state, not to mention their deeply felt patriotism. She waited hours, days and weeks until they were ready to open up.
We three children were looking forward to Mother’s birthday, which was December 18th. December was ‘our’ birthday month, Cyril’s on the 20th, mine on the 10th: but the 18th was by far the most important. With a view to deciding what was to be done, we gathered round the schoolroom table, each armed with a statement of his or her financial resources. My assets were contained in an old purse that I kept hidden in a corner of the writing desk. This I emptied on the table. The contents were: one silver sixpence, one silver threepenny bit, and an assortment of coppers – total one shilling and tenpence halfpenny. Cyril was not in a much stronger position, and it remained for Ethel to retrieve the situation, which, I have to admit, she did most nobly. Lucky enough to have a godmother who sent her postal orders she was able to produce nearly ten shillings. Most magnanimously, she suggested that we pool our resources and give Mother one really nice present rather than three inferior ones. Cyril and I volunteered to draw and paint a birthday card between us, and we left it to Ethel to decide on the nature of the present.
When she died in 2010, at the astonishing age of 104, the novelist and biographer Elizabeth Jenkins was all but forgotten, her name known only to a few aficionados, her books mostly long out of print. And yet, in her day, her reputation had been up there with the other distinguished Elizabeths of mid-twentieth-century fiction, Bowen and Taylor. What happened?
For generations of children, Michael Morpurgo has been a kind of Pied Piper. No one is sure exactly how many books he’s written, but there are over 150 of them, and they are said to have sold, in total, more than 35 million copies. Many have become classics – Private Peaceful, which follows a First World War soldier through the last night of his life before he is executed for cowardice; Kensuke’s Kingdom, the story of a small boy washed up on an island in the Pacific; Why the Whales Came, set in the Scilly Isles in 1914.
On our course we were studying Rochester, as published in the Muses Library edition, and while we were certainly impressed by the rage and ingenuity of his satires, most of us had fallen slightly in love with the limpid beauty of his lyrics – especially ‘Absent from thee I languish still’ and ‘All my past life is mine no more’. It was a little mysterious that this early collection should be kept under lock and key but, as I was briskly informed, this was an unexpurgated and obscene book, definitely not suitable for impressionable undergraduates. And, actually, would I go away now and only come back with written permission from my tutor? That is, if I really needed to return.
I met Davidson in 1994 when Kolymsky Heights, his last and arguably his finest, was published. He was slight and unassuming, with expressive dark eyes that widened when I showed him my early proof copy and said how much I’d enjoyed it. How did he come to be familiar with the ‘howling wastes’ of Siberia, virtually closed to outsiders for decades, so chillingly evoked in the book? It was all based on factual research, he said simply; he had never set foot there.
How many know the story already? The question takes me back to my last year in primary school, when I was awarded the only literary prize I have ever won. It was for an essay ‘On the Evils of Alcohol’, set by the village Ladies’ Temperance Association – a misnomer, as abstinence, not temperance, was their aim. The prize was Stories of King Arthur and His Knights, retold for youngsters by Barbara Leonie Picard. I devoured this book and was gladdened by the far-away world it created . . .
‘Thanks for the podcast. I have even managed to download it (actually as easy as falling off a log). With regard to Georgette Heyer, I find her regency novels full of wit and humour, which when I read them as teenager I missed. Best wishes for future podcasts.’
‘What a delightful 60th issue of Slightly Foxed, especially the art work by Posy Simmonds. Enjoyable to see the dogs portrayed, Stanley looks to be a dog with attitude. I also enjoyed and can identify with fellow subscriber Janet Morgan’s views about Facebook. I should have liked to have attended the recent celebrations at the London Library Reading Room but at least this year I was able to come to the Readers’ Day which I enjoyed. Thank you for the hard work it must have been to organise. The venue was delightful too.’
‘I have just renewed my membership for another three years. What would I do without you? Slightly Foxed is one of the good things to look forward to every quarter, you bring a smile to my lips and joy to my heart with every issue. Thank you! All best wishes.’
‘I have just listened to your first podcast and was delighted to hear that you re-read old favourites. The piece on Anne Fadiman sent me straight to Ex Libris which I re-read (not for the first time!) and I’m happy to say I knew exactly where to find it! Looking forward to December’s podcast.’
‘Congratulations on the podcast. I’ve just listened to the first episode on the way home from work & I’ve already ordered two of the books mentioned (Thousand Acres & Lees-Milne Diaries). I love Riddle of the Sands (the audio book read by Anton Lesser is terrific) & I have Ex Libris on the shelves so it’s time for a reread.’
‘I have just listened to your first podcast. It is truly inspiring and makes the listener feel that he/she is sitting round the kitchen table with you. Apart from being inspiring it is also so friendly that one feels that one is being welcomed into the Slightly Foxed family (including the three dogs who performed well in the recording). It also makes it clear that reading can be a real pleasure with the right guidance. If the selling of JM brought about the founding of Slightly Foxed then I made an excellent decision!’
‘I loved your podcast! I am not a listener, much more a reader, but how could I resist. Wonderful listening . . . I look forward to more. Very best wishes & congratulations.’
‘Thank you. It was delightful to listen to the lively voices (dogs included) responsible for the wonderful magazine that is Slightly Foxed. It brings me a bit closer to a sense of acquaintance with you all. I know I will enjoy future podcasts. As a reader from the North American Midwest, I was pleased to head Jane Smiley mentioned. Perhaps Gail would also enjoy exploring some of our fine, but lesser-known authors. I would recommend Jon Hassler’s Staggerford or Grand Opening. Small town rather than rural, but still distinctly midwestern. All the best from Minnesota.’
Most Slightly Foxed readers, we suspect, have some irritating gaps on their bookshelves left by favourite titles lent and never returned. Our regular contributor Oliver Pritchett addressed this problem back in SF Issue 33, offering readers some elementary do’s and don’ts of book etiquette,…
‘Just wanted to say that I have just listened to your first podcast and loved it! Looking forward to December’s edition. Well done!’
‘Just a few lines to say how much I enjoyed the first SF podcast. It immediately reminded me of a Summer’s day about five years ago when I arrived unannounced at your door in Hoxton Square, Gail answered and kindly invited me upstairs to see where it all happens. Hazel wasn’t present that day but I was introduced to other members of staff. I don’t expect any of you there at the time would remember this occasion but as an ex-compositor, once actively engaged in helping to produce the printed word, first by hand setting in the old hot-metal days and then into the era of electronic typesetting. So when I listened to the podcast I pictured you all there talking to me, reviving a precious memory. The Winter edition will complete my ninth year as a subscriber to your, dare I say our, beautifully produced publication and look forward to future podcasts that I am sure will be as popular as the magazine.’
‘May I thank the members of staff, and the dogs who support the members of staff, for publishing Slightly Foxed, and for offering a podcast. I know that putting a podcast together is complex, and consumes much time.’
‘Well done, SF. This is just lovely. Thank you. I feel like I’m sat there with you.’
‘I’ve just listened to your first podcast and found it very enjoyable and highly informative. Congratulations on hitting upon such a well-produced and wonderful idea! I shall certainly try and find time in my busy teaching schedule to listen regularly to the monthly episodes, here in the Netherlands.’
‘Adoring your début podcast in an overheated hotel room in Tunis. Completely wonderful and ridiculously good for morale before I head to beleaguered Tripoli. Jim is a Norfolk friend. Hurrah for you all and many salaams.’
‘To use the common parlance – lush! I am already devoted.’
‘I don’t often listen to podcasts, as they eat into reading time. However, I had a pile of ironing so thought I would give yours a try and I loved it. I even found myself joining in the conversation occasionally! And being able to put voices to names was also a pleasure. The ironing pile is growing again so please hurry up with the next one!’
In the first episode of The Slightly Foxed Podcast, Gail, Hazel, Steph and SF director Jim Ring meet round the kitchen table at No. 53 to remember how it all began and Veronika Hyks gives voice to Liz Robinson’s article on Anne Fadiman’s well-loved Ex Libris.
The deadline for the Slightly Foxed Subscribers’ Writing Competition 2019 has now passed. We will be in touch with the winner(s) in due course, and an announcement will be made in the forthcoming Summer issue of Slightly Foxed, published 1 June.
For 14 years now, the team at Slightly Foxed has been hunting down forgotten books and weaving them into a quarterly magazine. It’s become a favourite for thousands of readers worldwide, more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. And now, there’s something new: The Slightly Foxed Podcast for adventurous readers.
‘Wonderful! I am in the middle of listening to the first one (using The Podcast App). Had to stop in order to tell you how thrilled I am. Excellent voices, really interesting content, this is just what I hoped for. Thank you so much and congratulations to the whole team.’
‘Sick of bestsellers and celebrity authors? Escape into a civilized world of knowledgeable and witty bibliophiles. Two episodes in and I’m hooked. The host skillfully weaves the conversation round the kitchen table at this pocket-sized magazine as the Slightly Foxed team and their guests discuss lesser-known literary gems. I particularly enjoyed hearing from the formidable and entertaining Frances Wood, formerly of the British Library, about her time spent in Mao’s China. This is a real find.’
‘What a delight and what a coincidence! The very day that your first podcast arrived on my tablet, I had a small operation on one of my eyes that for a brief period is preventing me from reading. Now I can savour the delights of Slightly Foxed with one of my eyes heavily bandaged. Sheer bliss as I rest up for a few days while I wait for my next print edition to arrive.’
‘Absolutely loved hearing both podcasts today, one after the other. May I say how much my enjoyment was enriched by the clear, fluent way all participants expressed themselves, and in such lovely mellow tones, managing to convey an intimate setting in which we, the listeners, were cherished, invited guests around a familiar and comfortable table. Warmest thoughts to you all.’
‘What a super addition to The Slightly Foxed repertoire, very well done Foxes! I’m sure I’m not the only subscriber who feels that they are now even more part of the Troop, it felt very cosy to be in the The Slightly Foxed Earth, as it were! Looking forward to Episode 2.’
‘. . . It’s about good reads you’ve never heard of. I’ve now got a long list of fascinating books to buy after only two episodes and not a single “bestseller” among them! A new gem.’
‘Unmissable! Inviting; stimulating; a companionable encouragement to persevere in reading widely and well. The first episode has already added some newcomers to my “to read” list, and I’m very much looking forward to future instalments. You will, too. Novel!’
‘Dear slightly foxes, I listen to a wide range of bookish podcasts and yours has gone straight to the top of my favourites list. My only mistake was listening to it in the car on my morning commute rather than settling down in a comfy armchair with a cup of tea. It honestly does feel like the equivalent of a bookish chat with a good friend.’
‘My reason for writing is that today we listened to your new podcast as we drove to pick up our son from university. I listen to quite a few of these and they vary from fascinating to self-indulgent. What you have done is a very difficult thing to do and is hardly ever done as well as your podcast does it – to represent and bring to life in a new medium the experience you give your subscribers through the quarterly. The whole feeling of gentle joy we get from discovering new books and authors and being reminded of old favourites was there as was so much else we get from your quarterly and what it opens up. Thank you and keep them coming.’
‘I love Slightly Foxed and tend to have several on the go at once – one on the breakfast table, one in the car and the latest issue beside my bed. I’ve discovered several ‘new’ authors including J. L. Carr (hilarious) who have become simply indispensible. My speciality is ‘forgotten’ authors so SF is just my thing!’
If you would like to introduce a fellow booklover to the world of Slightly Foxed this Christmas, why not get your order in before the rush? The packing desk is well-equipped with rolls of good brown paper, lengths of foxy cream ribbon, piles of wood-engraved gift cards and towers of handsome gift boxes in hopeful anticipation . . .
Miriam Macgregor’s seasonal wood engraving decorated the contents page of Issue 36 of Slightly Foxed, Winter 2012.
Slightly Foxed subscribers receive a 10% discount on Edgcumbes freshly-roasted coffee and hand-blended loose leaf tea products . . .
Slightly Foxed subscribers receive a 10% discount on reading retreats at lovely houses around the UK . . .
Slightly Foxed subscribers receive a 10% on reading retreats at The Old Bakery . . .
‘I couldn’t be more delighted with Slightly Foxed. I have been a member for some time now, loving the reviews, relishing the superb writing style, but until now I had never bought any of the specially bound books. Oh, I’d made lists of my favourites and promised myself this treat but just never actually got around to it. Then I read the review of Ghosting by Jennifer Erdal. It made my heart race . . .’
As the build-up to Christmas in all of its fun and exhausting glory fast approaches, the office foxes have been wondering if they could abandon the scaffold-clad confines of Hoxton Square for a spell in the forest. But then who would greet Paul from Smith Settle with the winter haul in a few weeks’ time, hand-write gift messages, swaddle parcels in tape and wrestle postbags downstairs for our cheery postman to collect each day? No! It simply won’t do. We are far too fond of our readers and conscious of their literary present requirements for that so, for this month’s mailing, we’re making do with a spot of armchair escapism with Brendon Chase instead . . .
‘So thrilled you’re doing a calendar this year. I was given one as a gift a couple of years ago and was heartbroken to find you weren’t selling one last year. A thing of beauty.’
‘I can’t wait to get Slightly Foxed Editions 44 and 45. I reread Winnie the Pooh this year and saw the exhibition of Shepard’s drawings. I’m so glad you’ve created a subscription for the Editions, so that I can pay in advance and don’t have to think about it. They will just come, like the gifts they are, as they are published. These are my Christmas gifts to myself. Thank you, and your photos on your website and in your email are beautiful’.
Howard Phipps studied painting and printmaking at The Gloucestershire College of Art. He is now based near Salisbury and is probably best known for his drawings and engravings of the chalk downs of Wiltshire and Dorset.
‘Dear Slightly Foxed, I was recently given a subscription to your quarterly booklets for my 50th birthday. It was from a very good friend that I introduced to Persephone Books. So I knew, having never heard of your books, that it would be good as my friend has great literary taste! I have devoured the Summer read . . . ’
‘Thank you for my copy of A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book and my new jute book bag which is replacing the much loved and worn into holes one that I have at the moment. It is always such a pleasure doing business with you and I really appreciate the personal touch of the accompanying postcard.’
Damian Barr’s Literary Salon tempts the world’s finest writers to the world’s loveliest venues to read from their latest, greatest works and share their own stories. They showcase established names alongside emerging talents, and have invited Slightly Foxed contributors such as Sarah Perry, Richard Holloway and Diana Athill to regale audiences with tales.
‘Dear all, I just wanted to thank you so much for my order of A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book. It arrived last week, so carefully packed and in immaculate condition. I was particularly touched by the postcard with a message from Olivia enclosed with it, and the bookmark. The book itself, beautifully printed, is an absolute delight. If I find myself feeling a bit down, I pick it up and open at random, and immediately feel better! Many thanks for this and all your excellent publications, not least the wonderful quarterly magazine.’ J. Gilfrin, Hertfordshire
‘Thank you very much for the bookmarks that came with my recent order, they are really delightful.’ C. Dawson, Cambridge
‘As the Second World War draws to a close, a group of six friends pool resources in order to rent a sizeable House in the Country – capital H, capital C. Their list of requirements is exacting. It has to be ‘one of those houses that’s been built bit by bit, for hundreds of years’. It has to have acres of land and dozens of outhouses. As it turns out, such a house does exist, a pretty, rambling but rather rundown Tudor manor house in deepest Kent. And so they move in . . .’
‘I wanted cheering up so I opened A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book and you could have heard my chuckles from Weybridge to London. I really think it is a book that everyone ought to have with them, by them, anywhere, any place; a good laugh is what we all need.’
‘Thank you for all my lovely goodies posted recently. I just love the notebooks and the Christmas cards are for special people. I’m so looking forward to the calendar and The Christmas Cracker. I find your online shop extraordinary and no matter how busy you are, or who answers the phone, there is always chat time. Thank you.’ D. Sayed, Surrey
Greetings from No. 53, where the number of boxes is fast diminishing and the route to the kettle fast widening as the office foxes beaver away to get books into the hands of readers around the world . . . Please read on for an extract from the latest title in the SF Editions list, Jennie Erdal’s wickedly funny Ghosting: A Double Life, introduced by a snippet of SF editor Hazel’s article in the current issue of the quarterly.
‘Just a quick note to thank you for the delivery of my recent order of A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book, a great surprise in this morning’s post, just as I hoped it would be, very dry and clever, plus the second copy is one Christmas present off the list. As usual these books are not only interesting and something I may not necessarily have come across with other publishers, but also a joy to hold in your hand. Many thanks.’ B. Davidson, London
‘I adored Jennie Erdal’s book – how different from anything I have ever read. Warmly admiring of all the Slightly Foxed team.’ J. Cawthorne, Suffolk
‘I just received my first issue of the magazine and I just wanted to say I absolutely adore it. Thank you for your message and the wonderful bookmark, I’ll immediately add it to my collection.’ E. Mascaretti, Italy
Each Christmas for the past sixteen years Dr Philip Evans has sent his friends and family a small booklet of ‘wonders and absurdities’ gleaned from many different sources over the year. When he sent the booklets to us they made us laugh so much we decided to publish a selection. The result is A Country Doctor’s Commonplace Book, a very personal look at the pleasures and eccentricities of English life from a well-read individual with a keen sense of humour and many decades of observing his fellow men and women in his work as a Suffolk GP. Altogether this is a little book we’d say you can’t do without in these serious and uncertain times . . .
I had thought of keeping a commonplace book for many years. In my library at home I had gradually collected a few classic examples, such as Maurice Baring’s Have You Anything to Declare?, John Murray’s A Gentleman Publisher’s Commonplace Book…
welcomed friends, subscribers and local book-lovers to Wyken Vineyards to celebrate the publication of the Autumn issue of Slightly Foxed, SFE No. 43: Jennie Erdal’s Ghosting and a Slightly Foxed Special.
Our guests enjoyed books galore, a glass of wine and readings of wonders and absurdities!
We’re absolutely delighted to see that John Hackett’s memoir I Was a Stranger has been selected by author Lynne Olson for her The Wall Street Journal ‘Five Best’ books feature on Britain’s European Allies . . .
‘I have just renewed online for 3 years, but if I could have done so for 10 years I would have. I cannot tell you what a restorative healing transfusion SF is.’ J. Sanger, United States
‘The bookmarks arrived today and I am delighted with them, thank you once again. I am also enjoying hugely catching up on the Foxed Quarterlies I missed!’ C. Russell, Somerset
We’re delighted that the Corsham Bookshop has sold copies of Slightly Foxed for the past thirteen years and recommends us to readers each and every quarter. Therefore, it was a pleasure to learn more about life at the bookshop, as well as add to our reading list, courtesy of bookseller Janet Brakspear.
‘It’s hard to believe autumn is here already. But the days are shortening, the air is growing brisker, and gradually the city is coming to life again as people trickle back after the long summer break. London is back in business, and it’s all go here in the Slightly Foxed office, with the latest of the Slightly Foxed Editions and Slightly Foxed Cubs arriving from the printers, and some new projects afoot . . .’
Slightly Foxed subscribers receive a 10% discount on bookings from September to June at this farmhouse in Umbria . . .
Slightly Foxed subscribers receive a 25% discount on admission to The Munnings Art Museum . . .
Wednesday 3 October 2018
Dedham Assembly Rooms, Essex
The Munnings Art Museum’s second birthday lecture was a wonderful opportunity to hear life stories from broadcaster and former politician, Martin Bell OBE, in a beautiful setting. Like Sir Alfred Munnings, Bell grew up in the Waveney Valley on the Suffolk/Norfolk border and his father, farmer, writer and first Times crossword compiler Adrian Bell was friends with Munnings in the 1930s.
It’s the turn of the quarter once again here at Slightly Foxed and what a glorious haul the new season brings.
Thanks to the usual sterling work of Tracey and her team at Smith Settle printers in Yorkshire, the new issue of the quarterly: No. 59, ‘Manhattan Moments’, is now on its way to readers all around the world. We do hope you’ll enjoy it when it arrives.
It’s the end of the Easter holidays, and Robin, John and Harold Hensman can’t face returning to their boarding-school. Their ‘people’ are in India, and for years they’ve been entrusted to the care of their fussy maiden aunt, assisted by the vicar. Banchester isn’t bad as English public schools go, but they are country boys who dread being trapped in a classroom when summer approaches and the great outdoors calls. They hatch a plan. They will escape and hide out like Robin Hood and his merry men in the eleven-thousand-acre forest of Brendon Chase . . .
The Prime Minister was blazingly indiscreet, prefacing the most vital secrets of military strategy with such remarks as ‘this is rather private’ and reminding her not to leave the letter lying on the hall table. And his thumbnail sketches of his colleagues are wickedly enjoyable: arguing with Churchill, he wrote, was like arguing with a brass band, but even that was preferable to listening to his eloquence. But Asquith did not write to his son.
The Old School is made up of seventeen essays by writers who achieved literary distinction later in life, though some are all but forgotten today. Apart from Auden, still familiar names include Harold Nicolson, H. E. Bates, Anthony Powell, Elizabeth Bowen and Stephen Spender. Less well remembered are the South African novelist and poet William Plomer and the novelist and film critic E. Arnot Robertson.
There is no good reason why an expert and dedicated gardener should be able to write elegant prose – and a survey of the gardening shelves of bookshops, along with the many magazines devoted to horticulture, will confirm that the two skills rarely converge. One glittering exception was Christopher Lloyd, known familiarly as Christo, who died in 2006 havebaying spent almost his entire adult life developing the five-acre garden at Great Dixter, his family home in East Sussex, where he was born in 1921. He wrote columns about it for Country Life and other journals, and produced seventeen books.
One day in 1981 a young woman found herself travelling from her Scottish home to London to meet a publisher. So far so predictable perhaps. She had read Russian at university and had recently translated the memoirs of the painter Leonid Pasternak, father of the more famous Boris. There was nothing predictable about this meeting, however, and the man waiting for her at the door of his Mayfair flat was no ordinary publisher. This is how she describes him.
Three-quarters of the way through the novel I’ve always thought is Camus’ finest, its two main protagonists go for a swim after dark in the waters beyond the harbour of their coastal city, which is in the grip of bubonic plague. The city is Oran, in north-west Algeria; the date is sometime in the 1940s. The plague, which gives the novel its name, has sealed Oran off from the outside world. The Mediterranean water into which the men plunge breathes like a fur-covered animal, Camus tells us.
Seven Gothic Tales is an apt title. All tales must have a teller, and Dinesen’s seven separate tales – all long, some long enough to be novellas – have multiple storytellers. There are tales within tales within tales, each opening on to the next like a series of Russian dolls. The themes are Gothic: doomed love affairs; the inevitability of fate; super natural forces. There are gloomy monasteries, ghosts, violent murders and bizarre plot twists including a nun who transforms into a monkey.
While reading Len Deighton’s Bomber (1970), I was reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s line – ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good.’ Bomber is a novel about the area bombing of Germany during the Second World War. Targeting German cities and civilians is a part of Britain’s war that is still extremely controversial. It doesn’t fit into the heroic narrative of the Battle of Britain, the Blitz or D-Day. Almost alone among British forces, bomber crews were not issued with a campaign medal when the war ended. The debate as to whether the bombing was a necessary evil or simply just evil continues to exercise historians and writers to this day.
Part of the attraction lies in its hero, Alfred Polly. He is a small, inconsequential man, the sort who drifts through life as if in a dream. ‘I’ve never really planned my life, or set out to live,’ Polly admits. ‘I happened; things happened to me. It’s so with everyone.’ But Polly is graced with a warm heart and a real need for affection. He has a romantic streak fuelled by a voracious and indiscriminate love of reading. He also has a knack for comic neologism that makes up for his lack of formal education. Pushy youngsters are referred to as a ‘Shoveacious Cult’, full of ‘Smart Juniosity’. A man with a prominent Adam’s apple is the ‘Soulful Owner’ of an ‘Exorbiant Largenial Development’.
I have been reading Trollope’s fiction over several decades, but it was not until this year that I embarked upon his three principal Irish novels. They have not been his most popular works, and I, like many others, was deterred by the heavy use of dialect which slows the reader down and makes the page look unwelcoming. But when I decided to overcome this prejudice, I was rewarded.
I wonder if I have ever stayed in an English house that didn’t contain a creased and dog-eared book by Osbert Lancaster. In my childhood his collections of pocket cartoons were always a disappointment: the comic sketches on their covers promised hilarity, but the jokes inside – no doubt wonderfully topical in their day – meant little to me. His architectural books, which I noticed as I grew older, seemed forbiddingly esoteric. Not until I acquired parents-in-law who owned almost his entire oeuvre did I discover the memoirs that convinced me of his brilliance: All Done from Memory (1953) and With an Eye to the Future (1967) are remarkable not just for their wit and powers of observation, but for their highly individual take on Britain’s path to two world wars.
Somewhere high in the Austrian Alps there may lie the body of a librarian, for that is where Robert Proctor was last seen, at the head of the Taschach valley, on the morning of Sunday, 6 September 1903.
Set in Cornwall, it is a brilliantly compelling story told in recognizable du Maurier style: civil disturbance lurks in the background; it has a frustratingly passive narrator; and it deals with that all too painful subject, unrequited love. But whereas some of her novels hint at the supernatural, this one is a true time-travel story.
If literary critics are to be believed, understanding literature requires an analytical approach. We all know, however, that our experience of a particular book or author is often bound up with where we happen to be in life. In that sense, reading is as much about self-discovery as discovery of what the author meant. Perhaps the great books are those which can accommodate the widest possible range of reader experiences of whatever time and place. Certainly the circumstances in which I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) bore little relation to those of its first German readers in the era of the Weimar Republic. Yet connections emerged in the most surprising ways.
Written by the Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the USSR, the guide describes Moscow as ‘the city of emancipated and joyful labour’. In fact it was a huge building site over which hovered the angel of death. The architect of this apocalyptic landscape was Josef Stalin, who had promised Muscovites that in future life would become ‘merrier’. In 1935 he approved a ten-year plan that would do for Moscow what Haussmann had done for nineteenth- century Paris.