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 £44
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 £44
‘I love it! I intend to have some of the images framed as I did with the last calendar that I bought from you.’ S. Jackson
We’re delighted with the response to our latest calendar – a special celebratory one to mark our 70th issue earlier this year. We’ve just cracked open the last few boxes so if you’ve been thinking about ordering one, you might like to do so fairly soon. It would make a charming present for anyone who loves Slightly Foxed, or indeed for anyone who hasn’t yet come across the magazine. It’s a handsome, spiral-bound decorative wall calendar printed on sturdy paper with a board backing, and features some more of the seasonal Slightly Foxed covers that readers enjoy so much. We feel it will raise the spirits and look good in any room.
Warm wishes from SF HQ. Parcels and packages are flying out from Hoxton Square to readers at a great pace and, whether they are literary gifts for a fellow bibliophile or seasonal treats that have caught your eye, we do hope they bring much cheer. Gift ideas for booklovers are abundant here at Slightly Foxed, and we hope that our online Winter Readers’ Catalogue (which includes our pick of books from other publishers’ bookshelves) provides some interesting and unusual present solutions. Or perhaps you may be tempted to stock up on some reading for yourself.
Book recommendations in Slightly Foxed literary magazine Winter 2021 The Winter issue of Slightly Foxed magazine contains the usual eclectic mix of good book recommendations to take your reading off the beaten track. Read on for our contributors’ pick of…
As well as listing all of the books we publish here at Slightly Foxed, the quarterly Readers’ Catalogue includes our pick of the best books to read this winter. From classic literature to children’s book gift sets and the best…
This companion podcast to the excellent quarterly periodical is a must listen for avid readers – and if you haven’t checked out the magazine you should do that too . . . The conversations are warm and illuminating, and guaranteed to add to your ever growing ‘to-read’ pile.
We are absolutely delighted to report that copies of our recently published Special Release – Letters to Michael: a father writes to his son 1945–1947 – have been flying out of Foxed HQ to readers around the world this month, many of them gift wrapped in good brown paper with hand-written notes to be opened on Christmas Day. This is thanks, in part, to glowing write-ups by Bel Mooney for the Daily Mail and Iona McLaren for the Telegraph a few weeks ago, and inclusion in a round-up of the very best books for 2021 by Telegraph critics this weekend. Thanks too to our bookselling friends at Daunt, John Sandoe, Hatchards and to many other wonderful independent shopkeepers up and down the country who have been creating delicious-looking displays featuring the book, pressing it into the hands of customers and selecting it for their seasonal catalogues.
‘Aside from his books, he loved nothing – and no one – longer, more ardently, or more faithfully than he loved wine . . . they both sparked conversation, they both were a lifetime project, they both were pleasurable to shelve, they were the only things he collected.’
Wednesday 29 September was a red-letter day for us – the first time for eighteen months that we’d got together under one roof to record the Slightly Foxed podcast. Since the first lockdown in March 2020 we’d been sitting at home each month at our separate desks waiting – usually a touch nervously in our case as we’re neither of us entirely confident when it comes to anything technical – to see if we’d made the connection with Philippa our presenter in Cambridge and Lynne our producer in Cheshire.
In the 1920s, some of the more daring modernist poets further liberated their already metre-free verse by abandoning capital letters and conventional punctuation. One unfortunate poet had little choice. His diminutive size and the configuration of his limbs determined the way in which he was forced to write.
Anne Fadiman’s memoir of her father originated as one of several ideas for an article that she pitched to an editor at Harper’s magazine. ‘I think I could tell the story of my father’s life and character through wine,’ she proposed.
‘The Oenophile’s Daughter!’ he exclaimed.
His suggested title was jettisoned when they discovered that hardly anyone else knew what ‘oenophile’ meant, or how to spell or pronounce it. And soon afterwards the editor parted ways with Harper’s. But the idea took root; and Anne Fadiman realized that she wanted to write a book on the subject, not an article. In many ways her eventual title, The Wine Lover’s Daughter, is a misnomer; The Wine Loving Father is a more obvious description – though of course, in telling us about her father, she also tells us about herself.
Marvellously decorated with characterful pen-and-ink drawings, Letters to Michael is testament to a bygone era when snow fell thick, real pennies were squirrelled in plum puddings and letter-writing sketched the true contours of a relationship.
Those of us who prize a good literary thriller well above the price of rubies play a game resembling Fantasy Football. In our version we argue as to who are the top five thriller writers, then brood over which is their best book. For myself, the American author Martin Cruz Smith has never moved out of the top five, and his superlative Polar Star (1989), a story of murder and espionage on a Soviet fish-processing ship in the Bering Sea, is the book I most revisit.
It would appear that many people love ‘clinical writing’, a distinct genre that embraces doctors, diseases and patients. As a medic I tend to avoid this territory. Stories about medical practice lean either to the sententious (e.g. A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel) or the facetious (Richard Gordon’s Doctor in the House), while the current big sellers favour medical heroics in war zones or harrowing tales from that other front-line of combat, the NHS. Also, I don’t much care for the doctors who appear in novels. Who would employ Dr Tertius Lydgate, the idealistic young physician in Middlemarch, whose professional ambitions are so easily thwarted by the pretty, but shallow, Rosamund Vincy? And what about Dr Zhivago? Poet, lover and counter-revolutionary but, let’s face it, not much of a physician.
I’m not usually tempted by biographies of royals, living or not long dead. They tend to be written in deferential tones and I prefer something neutral or, better yet, something with teeth. However, twenty years ago, when I was preparing to write my novel Gone with the Windsors, I read a huge number of books about the Duke and Duchess. Panegyrics, hatchet jobs, you name it. Hugo Vickers’s Behind Closed Doors had yet to be published. When it came out in 2011, I felt compelled to read it. Vickers had no axe to grind. He hadn’t known the Windsors. Could he deliver the sharp-eyed skinny?
As I walked through the quiet twilight streets of the little Scottish fishing town in which I live, I unexpectedly came across two figures lounging on a pair of deckchairs. One was dressed in dark trousers, a red tartan jacket and matching tam-o’-shanter, while the other wore a silver sequined dress and an elaborate blonde wig. Although they were both strangely motionless, it was only when I got much closer that I realized these were not actually living people. They were dressed-up plastic skeletons, their gaping mouths laughing, their bony fingers pointing at me. How macabre, I thought, how gruesome. How very Stephen King.
Although I want to tell you about a poem, let us begin with objects. I would like you to come with me first to Birmingham, to visit the Staffordshire Hoard. These rich and intricately worked treasures, most of which were once decorations for weapons, conjure images of kings and warriors in the Dark Ages: Anglo-Saxon noblemen, proud and brave, the gold and garnets on their war gear flashing in the light of the sixth-century sun. The few objects that are not overtly martial are religious, and these show us how Christianity and paganism overlapped in England at this time: there are Christian crosses in the hoard, but they are decorated with the interlaced plants and animals characteristic of the pagan Germanic peoples. Perhaps most of all, though, the Staffordshire Hoard makes one think of passing, inheritance and decline. Some of the objects are decorated with re-used Roman glass, a reminder both of Roman technology and of Rome’s fall; more poignantly still, the majority of the items were systematically dismantled or broken up before they were buried, the precious metals and stones separated from the iron, wood, bone and cloth they once adorned. There must have been a reason for this, but that reason is lost, and those who understood it have been dust for centuries.
Five years ago, I visited Pablo Neruda’s former home in Valparaíso, now a museum. La Sebastiana is perched on a hillside with marvellous views out over the Pacific. When I reached the poet’s study at the top of the house, the audio tour commentary mentioned the ‘thrillers’ that he’d enjoyed, some of which were gathering dust on the lowest shelf of a bookcase. My lifelong fascination with detective stories made it inevitable that I would get down on hands and knees and explore the books to see if Neruda and I shared any tastes. There were a couple of dozen paperbacks, including – to my delight – dog-eared green Penguins written by a favourite author of mine, Anthony Berkeley.
That white ceramic inkpot sitting snugly in the corner of my desk. The agony of a crossed nib. The difficulty, being left-handed, of following the direction ‘light on the up stroke, heavy on the down stroke’. The blotting paper. The blue-black permanent stain on my finger. My first pen, an Osmiroid, and a bottle of Quink. I loved lifting the wee lever to refill the pen.
After two TV appearances and four radio interviews before 7 a.m., my wife and I were glad we could totter back to the Ambassador in Chicago or the Ritz Carlton in Boston and relax in our suite, lift the telephone and order breakfast for two. But that was half a century ago, when publishers organized publicity tours on a grand scale; now, when friends come to Australia to talk up a new book, I meet them at a hotel (three-star at best) at the back of Kings Cross.
There is a poignant urgency underpinning Phillipson’s letters, his care to underline tricky spellings, his striving to imagine the world through his tiny son’s eyes.
My father Charles Phillipson would have been amazed and delighted to learn that his series of letters to me, written when I was a small boy, were to be published. No such thought would have occurred to him during the long period of their gestation and delivery. When I started school in 1944, he had already made me a small book, containing playful drawings of the alphabet’s upper- and lower-case forms, to encourage my reading. He continued this process some months later through the sequence of letters published here, which begin on Saturday, 10 February 1945 and end on Wednesday, 29 October 1947. Developed as intimate gifts to me, they affirmed his love and revealed his way of engaging with my world.
On 1 January 1913 a new kind of bookshop opened in London. Located in a rundown street off Theobalds Road, it occupied three floors of a Georgian house, and was presided over by an idealist whose private income – largely derived from family-owned asylums – never quite met the shop’s expenses. This was Harold Monro, poet, publisher and editor of The Poetry Review, to whose subscribers he announced his intention of opening a bookshop ‘devoted to the sale of poetry, and of all books, pamphlets and periodicals connected with poetry’. For the next two decades he was to put the Poetry Bookshop at the heart of the London poetry scene. The other figure bestriding literary London at this time was Ezra Pound: in temperament, taste and ambition the two men could not have been more different.
Heather Clark, Professor of Contemporary Poetry at the University of Huddersfield and author of the award-winning biography Red Comet, joins the Slightly Foxed team from New York to dispel the myths that have come to surround Sylvia Plath’s life and art.
Tired of the cliché of the hysterical female writer, and of the enduring focus on Plath’s death rather than her trailblazing poetry and fiction, Clark used a wealth of new material – including juvenilia, unpublished letters and manuscripts, and psychiatric records – to explore Plath’s literary landscape. She conjures the spirit of the star English student at Smith College who won a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University and who brought her enormous appetite for life to her writing and relationships. We follow her life from the ‘mad passionate abandon’ of her thunderclap meeting with Ted Hughes, rebellion against genteel verse and her creation of a dark ‘potboiler’ in The Bell Jar to her belief that a full literary life and a family unit can coexist and the outpouring of first-rate poems fuelled by rage in her final days. She introduced female anger and energy into the poetic lexicon with ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Ariel’ and more; poems that were considered shocking at the time, but which are now regarded as masterpieces.
Greetings, dear readers. We’re delighted to announce that the new winter issue of Slightly Foxed is being sent out to subscribers this week and should soon begin to land on doormats around the world. We do hope it brings much reading pleasure. And for those of you who are on a repeat order to receive each limited-edition memoir each quarter, your usual hand-numbered copy of The Wine Lover’s Daughter by Anne Fadiman will be with you very soon. There’s still plenty of time to order subscriptions, books and goods in time for Christmas. We ship our wares all around the world and we will send out all of your delicious (and most welcome) gift orders over the next few weeks. The office is well-stocked with smart gift cards bearing wood engravings, reams of brown paper and signature cream foxed ribbon in anticipation.
Neil Gower is an internationally acclaimed graphic artist, best known for his book jackets (Bill Bryson, William Golding) and literary cartography (Kazuo Ishiguro, Jilly Cooper, Simon Armitage). As befits an artist, he was born into black and now inhabits white:…
‘Any man who would see another man’s glass empty is a bastard.’ This is the first commandment of Stanley Callaghan, one of many wonderful characters created by Michael Curtin, a comic genius sadly recognized as such only by a discerning few, though his fellow Irishman Roddy Doyle described him as ‘one of Ireland’s very best writers’, and they do say that it takes one to know one.
Bunkle began it for me. Searching for a gentle, undemanding get-me-to-sleep read, I happened on my wife’s childhood copy of a book called Bunkle Began It by Margot Pardoe. On a quick skim, I discovered that it was set in a seaside town on the edge of Exmoor which was my own home territory during the war. It also took me back to a Children’s Hour play with Bunkle as the lead character which had scared the wits out of me but was compulsive listening.
‘My dear Michael, Mummy and I are very pleased that you are now able to read books for yourself . . . As you grow older you will find that good books can be some of your best friends . . . Much love from Daddy’
It is 16 January 1947 and, as he does most days, Charles Phillipson has taken up his fountain pen to write to his young son Michael. Before Michael started school in 1944 Charles had already made him a book of playful drawings of the alphabet to encourage his reading. From early 1945 to the autumn of 1947 a sequence of 150 illustrated letters followed in which Charles captures the delight to be found in the mundane detail of everyday life, seen through the lens of his own quirky imagination. Now these letters have been gathered together in a handsome cloth-bound hardback edition. Letters to Michael presents a touching portrait of the relationship between a father and his son and captures a bygone age when people still wrote letters using pen and paper. Altogether, this charming book is an antidote to troubled times and would make a perfect present.
My father used to tell a story about a Frenchman (the dependable butt of Edwardian jokes) being invited to some large estate for a shoot. Seeing a cock pheasant coming into the open and running alongside a wood, he levels his gun to aim at it. At which his English host says, ‘My dear man, you can’t shoot it while it’s running!’ The Frenchman replies, ‘Certainly not, I shall wait until it stops.’ This used to make my father fall about laughing but I could never understand why.
It was the title that first attracted me, so many years ago. What adventure-hungry 13-year-old girl could resist On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers? My first love, Huck Finn, was overthrown within minutes. He was just a boy who had floated down a river on a raft; this was a young woman, a heroine, who had braved wolves, bandits and terrible hardships in a noble cause. And it was a true story! I longed to be Kate Marsden and ride through the Siberian wastes, a handsome Russian officer at my side. It was not to be: the book, borrowed from an elderly aunt, vanished during a house move and eventually real life supplanted schoolgirl dreams.
‘All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.’ Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5
Greetings from Slightly Foxed, where we’ve selected another article from the magazine’s archive for everyone to read for free. This time we travel to Dresden in the Second World War by way of SF Issue 49, in which A. F. Harrold reviews Slaughterhouse 5 and reflects on the humanity of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing.
‘Slightly Foxed is a very civilized way to appreciate books and writers. No shouting, no hype, just beautifully presented enthusiasms, most of which are irresistible.’ Michael Palin
Greetings from Hoxton Square, where we’re sending books and copies of the magazine to readers as quickly as we’re receiving deliveries of top-up stock and freshly printed titles from Smith Settle in anticipation of the coming season. A particular high point in the calendar will be our forthcoming Readers’ Day, on Saturday 6 November. We’re delighted to report that Michael Palin will be among the excellent contributors speaking at our usual London haunt, the Art Workers’ Guild in Queen Square. There’ll be a reduced audience for this year’s event to allow for social distancing. If you would like to join us, we advise booking now to avoid disappointment.
I can’t remember if my parents read to me at bedtime. If they did, it left not a trace behind. They did, however, pack me off at the age of 13 to a traditional boarding-school where bedtime reading to the new boys’ dormitory was an established ritual undertaken by the duty prefect. By the time I arrived this enlightened custom had degenerated from the originating housemaster’s lofty ideals. Some of the prefects appeared, even to us, as barely literate. One would read two or three pages of whichever book came to hand. The following night his successor would repeat the process with a random extract from a different book. It was barely a system and did not lend itself to continuity. Some read fluently and with feeling. Some read to us in foreign languages, living and dead. It didn’t matter. We adored it. It was a ritual and we were much aggrieved if it was denied. Perhaps that housemaster was wiser than I give him credit for. Perhaps even the prefects benefited.
We’re delighted to bring you news of a Slightly Foxed special release: Adrian Bell, A Countryman’s Winter Notebook.
‘Bell writes always of the ordinary things, of the seasons, of memories, of rain and laughter. Gentleness fits him naturally, just as the purity of his words opens our eyes to a life all around us which we might otherwise never have seen.’ So wrote the journalist Clement Court of his contemporary, the farmer-cum-writer Adrian Bell, best known for his rural trilogy, Corduroy, Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree, which vividly describe a time before machinery took over much of the work of men and beasts, altering the landscape and the face of farming forever. In addition to the books that followed his famous trilogy, from 1950 to 1980 Bell wrote a weekly column called ‘A Countryman’s Notebook’ for Suffolk and Norfolk’s long-serving local paper, the Eastern Daily Press. His columns were, as his son Martin Bell says in his preface, ‘not really journalism but prose poems about the natural life around him’, and these essays share that which is common to all his writing – a deep appreciation of the small moments of each passing day. Now a selection of these beautifully crafted essays has been gathered together and introduced by Richard Hawking to form the first, we hope, of a quartet of Bell’s writings on the seasons.
The cartoonist, writer and illustrator Posy Simmonds brilliantly captures the ambitions and pretensions of the literary world, and the journalist and curator Paul Gravett has worked in comics publishing for decades. Together they bring graphic novels and comic books to the foreground with the Slightly Foxed team. We draw moral lessons from the Ally Sloper cartoons of the 1870s, glimpse Frans Masereel’s wordless woodcut stories of the 1920s, view the pictorial politics of Citizen 13660 by Miné Okubo in the 1940s and revisit Art Spiegelman’s 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus before taking a closer look at more contemporary works. The discussion moves through panels, frames, splashes and spreads to Posy Simmonds’s own methods in bringing literature to life, including crosshatching to Vivaldi. Originally serialized in the Guardian, Posy’s Gemma Bovery builds on the bones of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tamara Drewe draws from Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, while Cassandra Darke takes inspiration from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol . . .
I keep returning to this magical collection, each time with renewed wonder that the letters survived — but also with a strange sadness that these days there is so little inclination to write any letters at all, let alone ones as happy and touching as these.
The Empress of Ireland is the novelist and screenwriter Christopher Robbins’s account of his friendship with the most successful forgotten Irish film director of all time, Brian Desmond Hurst . . . The book, simply, is a masterpiece, and its neglect is as inexplicable as that of its subject. Still Life by Richard Cobb, first published in 1983, is a memoir of a Tunbridge Wells childhood. Cobb, historian and Francophile, seems to have had a photographic memory, and his memoir is both an uncannily vivid resurrection of past times . . .
‘I have been a subscriber from the off, and I read every issue with pleasure. But I have to tell you that No. 71 is the best ever. The writing it contains is superb.’
Greetings from Hoxton Square, where we’re in very good spirits and wish to share some cheering news with our readers. This quarter we’re celebrating a new high: a first print-run of 10,000 issues of the new issue of Slightly Foxed magazine. As most of you will know, we regularly reprint our back issues so, over time, each issue has sold thousands of copies. But now, for the first time, we’re up to 10,000 for the first run of an issue, which feels momentous to a small publisher like us and it’s all thanks to you, our readers.
‘Our space is truly beautiful. Savoy is housed on the ground floor of an historic hotel that was built in 1888. It was empty and in disrepair when a local philanthropist purchased the space in 2013. He approached Annie Philbrick, the owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and said ‘If I build a bookstore that doesn’t cost you anything, will you run it?’ Conversations like that do not happen every day! Annie agreed to run it and the space was renovated from top to bottom. Savoy Bookshop & Café opened in Westerly, Rhode Island in 2016 and became the sister store to Bank Square Books, which is about 15 minutes away. The wood shelving, creaky floors, tin ceiling, exposed brick, and the large wrought iron staircase really make it the perfect setting for a bookstore.’
For those of you who have yet to add V. S. Pritchett’s classic memoir to your Slightly Foxed collection, we’re pleased to bring news of our featured autumn read. The writer V. S. Pritchett’s mother was an irrepressible cockney, his father a reckless, over-optimistic peacock of a man, always embarking on new business ventures which inevitably crashed – hence the ‘cab at the door’ waiting to bear the family quietly away from yet another set of creditors. In this vigorous and original memoir Pritchett captures the smells, sounds and voices of London in the first decades of the 20th century, and the cast of Dickensian characters among whom he grew up.
As well as listing all of the books we publish here at Slightly Foxed, the quarterly Readers’ Catalogue includes our pick of the best books to read this autumn. From classic literature to children’s book gift sets and the best…
The Dark Ages, Late Antiquity, the late Roman . . . however you define the years spanning the fall of Rome, the period is rich in stories, real or reimagined.
In this episode Dr Andy Merrills, Associate Professor of Ancient History, joins the Slightly Foxed team to cast light on the surviving literature. We begin with Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire before delving into 4th-century accounts by the Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus, a spiritual autobiography by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, ecclesiastical chronicles by the Venerable Bede, Gallic tales of Christian miracles and relic-looting with Gregory of Tours and an alternative look at the period with the modern-day master of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown. From there we venture into fiction with Rosemary Sutcliff’s adventures inspired by archaeological finds, a retelling of the old British folk ballad ‘The Twa Sisters’ in Lucy Holland’s Sistersong and much more besides . . .
The Halesworth Bookshop & Slightly Foxed
Richard Hawking & Professor Jules Pretty in conversation on a Slightly Foxed special release: Adrian Bell, A Countryman’s Winter Notebook at The Cut, Halesworth.
Many thanks to all who attended!
‘Hooked, I read straight through to the end, with its startling twist. (Warning: resist the urge to take a premature peek.)’ Martin Sorrell, SF Issue 69
Greetings from Slightly Foxed, where we’ve made great strides through the A-Z of the magazine’s archives and selected another article for everyone to read for free. Many of you were prompted to add Reunion by Fred Uhlman to your reading list following Martin Sorrell’s heartfelt recommendation in Issue 69 of the magazine. Such was the spike of interest in this novella, the publisher’s stocks were entirely depleted. However, we’re pleased to report that it’s available to order again. Perhaps you’ll be tempted to make a slim space on your bookshelves for this edition after reading Martin’s review.
In The Slightly Foxed Podcast, we’re treated not only to recommendations for unusual books, but also must-visit bookstores, museums and libraries. For bibliophiles, there’s no greater joy than being in the company of people who will endlessly talk books . . . It’s homey, yet rich with information and insight.
Our series of Slightly Foxed Editions are all absorbing reads – hitherto forgotten memoirs that bring alive a particular moment, that allow you into someone else’s world and make you feel you have actually known the writer. Often these books light up a period in a way no history book can. And that is what Anthony Rhodes has done in Sword of Bone, his wry account of the events leading up to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force in May 1940 – a ‘strategic withdrawal according to plan’ as the chaos was officially described. He manages to capture the absurdity as well as the tragedy of what took place in Dunkirk. For all its humour, Sword of Bone is a penetrating comment on the cruelty of war.
For many of us, the summer of 2021 will be remembered through the words of a song from forty years ago. ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ was the theme of days in which we packed and unpacked our bags, anxiously scanning the headlines. Whether in the end you decided on a staycation or ventured further afield, we hope you were refreshed by a change of scene. As for us, we’re finally back in the office and delighted to be able to see one another again. And we’re looking forward to a very busy autumn!
The new Autumn issue of Slightly Foxed (No. 71) has now left the printing press at Smith Settle and will start to arrive with readers in the UK very soon and elsewhere over the next few weeks. It ranges far and wide in the usual eclectic manner:
Margaret Drabble admires Doris Lessing • Andrew Joynes receives divine inspiration from William Golding • Olivia Potts has plenty to say about Mary Wesley • John Smart dreams of cheese • Clarissa Burden falls for Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant • Frances Donnelly visits Hotel du Lac with Anita Brookner • Ken Haigh make his case for The Hobbit, and much more besides . . .
With it, as usual, you’ll find a copy of our latest Readers’ Catalogue, detailing new books, our backlist, selected seasonal reading and other offers and bundles. We hope it will provide plenty of recommendations for reading off the beaten track this autumn.
Jackie Morris, born in 1961, grew up with a desire to paint. She studied art at Bath Academy of Art and has exhibited her work internationally. She is the illustrator of many books and the author of some. In 2019 The Lost Words, a book made in collaboration with Robert Macfarlane, won the Greenaway Medal. Her inspiration is found between the feathers of a raven’s wing in flight, in the voices of birds, the turning of the year and the shape of a fox. Books, art, paint, creativity, poetry, the remnant boxes of antique paints, all these things and more are an inspiration. She also has a passion for old typewriters, the songs they sing and their scent.
My mother Linda Kelly was a historian and lover of the eighteenth century, with biographies of Sheridan, Tom Moore and Talleyrand to her name. Though I studied history at university, when it comes to my own writing, my subject matter has been rather different – books on mental health and wellbeing, including a memoir about my own experience of depression, and a cookbook about eating with your mood in mind. But we had one literary overlap: I have always loved poetry and so did she. I think we both found it easier to communicate through the words of others. Poetry was our common ground.
On one of my more recent trips to Ireland, I took a detour through County Waterford to visit Lismore Castle. Towering over the steep, wooded banks of the Blackwater, it was built nearly 900 years ago by an English prince, was once owned by Sir Walter Raleigh and has been the Irish seat of the Dukes of Devonshire since the eighteenth century. The castle is a fairytale sight but what caught my eye, given pride of place on one distinctly ancient and sturdy-looking wall, was a plaque. Said wall, it explained, replaced one that had collapsed ‘for no apparent reason’. No more, no less. I was, briefly, bemused; on reflection, quite the opposite. That precise phrase recurs, to pointed and poignant effect, in Troubles, J. G. Farrell’s sublime tragicomedy about the dying days of Ireland’s Protestant Ascendancy. As I sheltered from the rain, by now rather less soft than it’s fabled to be, in the lee of that notable wall, it struck me as the perfect summation of the entire Anglo-Irish predicament.
Chance put this book into my hands – and I shall be forever grateful to her. Searching for local colour from late seventeenth-century Rome for a project of my own, I came across the Italian historical thriller Imprimatur (2002) by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. Whodunnits are not really my thing, but this seemed likely to fit the bill. It had been a hit all over Europe and was favourably compared with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
It was lockdown, and I was short of a book to read. One night I picked up the fat paperback volume of letters that I had ordered from Amazon (yes, I know, but where else could I buy a 1999 paperback in twenty-four hours in the panicky first weeks of the pandemic?). The book was Speaking for Themselves: The Personal Letters of Winston and Clementine Churchill; I thought it might be useful research for my biography of King George V. To my surprise, I was gripped. During those early weeks of London lockdown, I clung to the certainty of routine: long walks through the haunted, empty streets of Mayfair or Westminster, sneaking in two walks a day because of my dog, the weekly socially distanced supermarket queue and, at the end of those strange housebound days, looking forward to my bedtime ration of Churchill letters.
As parents, we hope our children will love the books we ourselves enjoyed, the ones that turned us into readers. But as often as not, our attempts to interest them fail. I remember a friend who was disappointed he couldn’t get his grandchildren to share his love of Swallows and Amazons, a book that had had a huge influence on his life, one that had turned him into a weekend sailor, even encouraged him to build his own boat.
‘Sutcliff was a superb writer with a classicist’s grasp of the era, a poet’s eye for nature and a devilish sense of plot. Fiction this evergreen cannot fail to uplift.’ David Mitchell
We’re pleased to report that the final two titles in our Slightly Foxed Cubs series of Rosemary Sutcliff novels, Sword Song and The Shield Ring, are both published on 1 September. We know that many of you have already placed orders for these books, either as part of a limited-edition set of all seven novels or as single titles. As thanks for your enthusiasm and support, we’ve dispatched your copies in advance of publication and they will be with you very soon, if not already, so please do look out for them in the post. The series of Roman and post-Roman novels that began with The Eagle of the Ninth in the Sussex downland has, by the last two books, moved to the north-west coast of England and the Hebridean islands, where the Vikings are expanding their empire . . .
Hotel du Lac was Anita Brookner’s fourth novel, published in 1984. To the consternation of many and the incredulity of the author, it won the Booker Prize that year. The photograph taken after the announcement shows an author wide-eyed with disbelief. And not just Ms Brookner. One of the judges, the late great Sir Malcolm Bradbury, consoled Julian Barnes, also shortlisted, with the words: ‘Bad luck, Julian – the wrong book won.’ With the greatest respect, Sir Malcolm, there are those of us who disagree. Hotel du Lac is the work of a supremely gifted novelist at the top of her game. Not just elegant, insightful and thought-provoking, but still, after many readings, laugh-out-loud funny. So it is pleasing to know from a work colleague that, for the whole of the next day, Anita was completely elated.
It was dusk on a winter’s day, many years ago now, when I settled down to read the prison letters of Dennis Nilsen, the most prolific murderer in British history. They had been donated to the Royal Society of Literature, where I worked, to raise money at an auction at Sotheby’s, and they were chilling. Written in hard-pressed-down black biro, the words were crammed on the pages with no breathing space – a graphologist had described them as indicating ‘a strangulation of the soul’ – and they bristled with contempt and fury against everything and everyone. But Nilsen’s critical savagery was never turned on himself – strange, as he had fatally strangled fifteen men.
When I was writing a biography of John Hayward, T. S. Eliot’s flat-sharer and friend for many years, I was intrigued to come across a letter from Eliot to The Times. It was a reply to a certain Sir John Squire who wanted to erect a statue to the creator of Stilton cheese. Who was Squire and why was this distinguished man of letters bothered about cheese? It was time to look at Squire’s original letter in the British Library.
I was 13 and mad about horses when I was presented with Brat Farrar. The name of its author, Josephine Tey, meant nothing to me at the time and the title didn’t tell me much either, but it had a picture of a horse on the cover, and that was enough for me. It proved to be the story of an imposture in which the reader knows more than the characters. I read it then and loved it, and I still do. Some years later, browsing through a box of second-hand books outside a small antique shop, I came across another of Tey’s books and, remembering the first, went in and bought it. It cost 10p. Thus began a lifelong devotion.
Charles Ritchie (1906–95) was a witty, cultivated Canadian diplomat whose voluminous diaries, a blend of anecdote, commentary and confession, were an ‘escape hatch’ from the confines of his profession. Much of what he wrote was too candid to be published. For instance in 1962, when stationed in Washington, he met Harold Macmillan, who was trying to ingratiate himself with President Kennedy. Macmillan, he waspishly noted, ‘drips “manner” like a buttered crumpet’. This must have been the occasion on which Kennedy disconcerted Macmillan, a complaisant husband, by revealing that he got a ‘terrible headache’ if he didn’t have a woman every two or three days. Unlike Macmillan, Ritchie would have understood. In January 1941, having kissed goodbye to his current squeeze, a pretty young ballerina who was off on tour, he looked forward to ‘early and varied infidelities during her absence’.
For me, some books act like a time machine, leading me back into my past, reminding me of how it felt to be young. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, the effect is intense. Sensations that I had forgotten arise afresh, and the world seems new again. Hugh Falkus’s The Stolen Years (1965) is one of those books, evoking for me the simplicity and innocence of boyhood.
Hugh Falkus’s The Stolen Years (1965) is one of those books, evoking for me the simplicity and innocence of boyhood. Not that his upbringing was anything like mine: far from it. He was a child of the inter-war period, inhabiting first a converted Thames barge on the Essex coast, and later an old sixty-ton, straight-stemmed cutter, moored in a Devon estuary; I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, in a house in West London. Nevertheless, his reminiscences stir my own.
A few months after my mother died, my sister and I returned home to clear out her possessions. I felt unsentimental about most of them. I readily threw away clothes, keeping only a cardigan that was the last thing she wore, and still smelled of her; I swept her extensive collection of toiletries into a large bin bag. From her jewellery, I squirrelled away only a pair of opal earrings, to wear on my wedding day. The exception to this general rule was her book collection. Mum was a voracious reader. When I picture our birthdays, holidays, family evenings together, I always see her with a book in her hand, and I consider a love of reading my most important inheritance. So I kept as many of her books as I could, lugging them from Newcastle to London in flimsy rolling suitcases. Among them was a complete collection of Mary Wesley’s novels.
I have always been taken with the idea of treasure-hunting. Not that I have done much of it myself. I do recall searching (without success) for a reputed abandoned gold mine on Tom Ball Mountain in the New England Berkshires, and I once went so far as to put together an anthology of treasure-hunting stories, which didn’t sell very well. But frankly, for me treasure-hunting is purely an intellectual sport, which is probably just as well. Reading about unexpected discoveries and adventurous expeditions is on the whole more practical than crashing through underbrush and keeping a weather eye for black bears, especially at my age.
I read Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City in 1969, when it was published, and I have a hardback first edition of it, still in its original dust wrapper. When I rediscovered my copy and reread it in the autumn of 2019, to prepare for a seminar at the University of East Anglia to celebrate her centenary, I found that I had been using a bus ticket as a bookmark. I must have been reading it on the No. 24 bus, on my way to or from South End Green in Hampstead. I had forgotten what London bus tickets looked like. The printing was a pale mauve. I couldn’t read that volume on a bus now. It is far too heavy. I can hardly read it in bed.
Across the east end of the nave of Canterbury Cathedral, where I was a volunteer guide for over a decade, there is a stone strainer arch erected by Prior Thomas Goldstone 500 years ago. It is a kind of tiebar, one of six which bind together the columns that support Bell Harry Tower, the cathedral’s dominant feature. The arch is essential to the integrity of the building’s central structure and is decorated with flowered designs and an inscription. On either side of the Prior’s initials and his rebus – three golden pebbles, a visual pun on his surname – there is the first verse of the psalm that begins Non nobis Domine (‘Not unto us, O Lord, but unto thy name give glory . . .’).
It’s silly to covet a piece of jewellery. When would you really wear Marie-Antoinette’s necklace or the Hope Diamond? Even the glittering parures paraded by red-carpet celebrities are borrowed, insured for millions and necessitate the accompaniment of burly heavies all the way back to the soft obscurity of velvet and safe. Ridiculous. But – all the same – how lovely it would be, just once, for a few minutes, to hold in one’s hands the ring of the Aquilas.
Introducing the latest addition to the Slightly Foxed Editions list, No. 56: George Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna. Published 1 September.
In February 1938, the grand Konzerthaus in Vienna was in full, glorious swing; bands were playing, there was dancing and singing and plenty of beer. It was the first ball ever attended by the 17-year-old Georg Klaar, and he stayed until the very last waltz. But on 11 March, lorries began thundering into the streets, filled with uniformed men waving swastikas and shouting ‘Death to Jews’. Austria was now betrayed and had been annexed by the German Third Reich. Barely four years later, Georg Klaar had become George Clare and was serving in the British army, and his parents had been rounded up and taken to Auschwitz. Only with hindsight can George discern the complex reasons for his family’s destruction, and for the whole appalling waste of war. This is a profoundly moving, honest and compassionate memoir, remarkably devoid of self-pity, though not of anger.
‘I wondered for a time who this brilliant “Mrs Bedford” could be,’ wrote Evelyn Waugh to Nancy Mitford on reading Sybille Bedford’s first novel, A Legacy.
The twentieth-century European writer Sybille Bedford could be many things: traveller, gourmand, oenophile, court reporter, Booker Prize-shortlisted novelist. In this month’s literary podcast the Slightly Foxed team discover the pleasures and landscapes of Bedford’s life, loves and writing with her biographer, Selina Hastings. The daughter of a German Baron, from childhood Bedford travelled endlessly, living in Germany, Italy, France, Portugal and Britain. Claiming to suffer from sloth and love of life, she deified her friend Aldous Huxley, had assets frozen by the Nazi regime, was funded by Martha Gellhorn and was known for her many lovers, all while experiencing the ‘tearing, crushing, defeating agony’ of writing. From a delicious account of a visit to Don Otavio in Mexico and vivid reportage of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial to the autobiographical novel Jigsaw, we see the world through Bedford’s observant eye and voracious appetite.
I have a photo of Aunt Margaret standing outside Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, beret jauntily askew. It is 1937 and, aged 28, she is on her return with a friend from Czechoslovakia, travelling in an Austin Ruby. Margaret – think Joyce Grenfell in St Trinian’s – always maintained she crossed Central Europe without difficulty despite losing her passport. It seems improbable but maybe not impossible. Regardless, the small black-and-white image enduringly appeals because it was taken amid perilous events in Austria of which Margaret, in her artless exuberance for life, was probably unaware. I wanted to know more of that time.
‘I was so glad to hear An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel praised . . . Hilary Mantel’s early novels get overlooked now and it is one of the joys of Slightly Foxed that it highlights areas like this.’ As you know, dear readers, Slightly Foxed is the literary magazine for people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the newspapers are reviewing. We hope to introduce, or reintroduce, you to all those wonderful books that languish on publishers’ backlists. Hilary Mantel is now best known for her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, but we’d like to put the spotlight on a selection of other riches from her writing life. We published her powerful and haunting memoir, Giving up the Ghost, in our series of SF Editions and, in Episode 31 of the Slightly Foxed podcast, we recommended her darkly inventive novel, An Experiment in Love. Please read on for details of The Hilary Mantel Bundle, together with links to single titles by this author. You’ll also find news of our forthcoming weekend wayzgoose – and amended office hours – as well as a special Summer Holiday offer for all readers to enjoy.
‘The love of words came before the love of travel.’ Colin Thubron
Warm wishes from Slightly Foxed, where we’re dipping into the archives to provide you with a free article to read this weekend. Maggie Fergusson met with the travel writer Colin Thubron in London in 2018 for her piece in SF Issue 58, but their conversation swiftly takes us to Damascus, Siberia and China through Thubron’s love of words and travel.
‘The two weeks in Washington seemed to last an age, for travel makes time stand still, like a dream which takes one through a long series of adventures while actually lasting only a few moments.’ Jessica Mitford, SF Edition No. 52: Hons and Rebels
Greetings from Hoxton Square, where we offer a series of adventures across the globe through our Slightly Foxed Editions. Guided by intrepid and entertaining travel companions, we traverse the United States with Jessica Mitford, Italian mountain ranges with Eric Newby, East Africa with Roald Dahl and blistering Spain with Laurie Lee. These are just a few of the far-flung destinations we visit in our series of classic memoirs – each edition brings alive a particular place and invites you into someone else’s world.
Diamond Dagger award-winning crime novelist and president of the Detection Club Martin Edwards and Richard Reynolds, crime buyer for Heffers Bookshop and member of the Crime Writers’ Association, lead our investigation in this month’s literary podcast. Together with the Slightly Foxed team, they take a magnifying glass to the Golden Age of crime fiction, tracing its origins to the interwar years when the Detection Club was founded and discussing why the genre continues to thrill. From relishing The Poisoned Chocolates Case and resurrecting Death of a Bookseller to the mystery of E. C. R. Lorac’s missing manuscript and meeting Baroness Orczy’s Teahouse Detective, the plot twists and turns as we collect British Library Crime Classics and celebrate Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey and others along the way. Whether enjoyed as well-crafted puzzles, social documents or guilty pleasures, detective fiction is laced with nostalgia as well as cyanide. To tie up loose ends, we finish with a visit to Agatha Christie’s holiday home, Greenway, a house fit for Hercule Poirot, and the setting of a Devonshire murder hunt in Dead Man’s Folly.
Greetings from Hoxton Square where, this summer, we’re travelling to far-flung destinations through the pages of Slightly Foxed. The latest issue of the magazine takes us far and wide, from language-hunting in the Karakorum and climbing Mount Kenya to Anthony Burgess’s Malaya and Robert Graves’s Ancient Rome . . . However, today we’re heading to the West Highlands of Scotland with Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, with the Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley as our guide.
Adrian Bell, most well-known for Corduroy and his ‘Rural Trilogy’, was a farmer-writer whose work reflects the changes in farming between 1920 and 1980. In the second half of his life, his Countryman’s Notebook essays were his main literary output. From 1950 to 1980 he wrote one each week for East Anglia’s The Eastern Daily Press: nearly 1600 in total.
For those of you who have yet to pick up this favourite from the Slightly Foxed bookshelves, we’re pleased to bring you news of our featured summer read. Based on the letters Frances Wood wrote home in 1975‒6, Hand-grenade Practice in Peking is both affecting and hilarious, a unique insight into a mysterious and painful moment in China’s history.
Like pain, the memory of the boredom of much of my visit in 1971, and of those interminable meetings with revolutionary committees, had faded with time and in 1975 I had applied to join the third group of British exchange students to go and study for a year in Peking. Though I could read Chinese and had a good job in a university library, working with Chinese books, I wanted to speak the language better. So now I was, once again, on my way to Peking. What follows is an account, based on letters home, of my year in China.
‘My love of pleasure seems to be the only consistent side of my character. Is it because I have not read enough?’ Françoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse
Greetings from Hoxton Square, where we’re once again travelling through the magazine’s archives to provide some welcome weekend reading. Charlie Lee-Potter’s piece on Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse appeared in Slightly Foxed Issue 14 and transports us to a summer spent on the French Riviera.
‘Revisiting the Carey novels today, I am struck by how fresh and magnetizing they have remained, and by how much there is in these books – as there is in all good children’s literature – that can be enjoyed by adults. It is common for readers of Welch to credit him with sparking a love of history . . .’
We thought it timely to travel back to June 1791 through the pages of Escape from France, a Carey adventure set in the midst of the French Revolution.
The news from Paris was brief and startling. King Louis, the Queen and all the Royal family had escaped from Paris and were believed to be making for the German frontier. Already a petition had been submitted to the Assembly for the proclamation of a Republic. Richard whistled softly. He might sleep through lectures on the constitution of Athens, though he had read far more widely on that subject than many of his friends suspected, but he followed the politics of Europe with an intelligent and well-informed interest. Well, this would put the cat among the pigeons, he thought.
A couple of years ago I found myself gazing at the cover of a book I’d loved as a child: the 1942 Carnegie medal-winning The Little Grey Men, by the naturalist, illustrator and sportsman Denys Watkins-Pitchford, who wrote under the name…
As many of our readers will know, Little Toller Books is an independent press that revives classic books about nature and rural life, and has published a whole host of Slightly Foxed favourites over the years: Gavin Maxwell, Edward Thomas, Adrian Bell and Clare Leighton to name just a few. Therefore, we’re thrilled that our friends at Little Toller have now opened a bookshop in Beaminster, West Dorset. Alongside their own titles, they stock a wide range of books that celebrate the very best writing about the natural world, as well as specially selected fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. The booksellers are staunch supporters of independent publishers, and many Slightly Foxed titles can be spotted in their beautiful displays.
‘Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves.’ It’s a scorching St Valentine’s Day in 1900 when three boarding-school girls and a teacher disappear during a day-trip to Hanging Rock in the arid Australian outback. Fact or fiction? Misadventure or murder? Accident or assassination? Join us on our latest literary podcast adventure as we delve into the mystery, history and hysteria of Joan Lindsay’s classic Australian Gothic novel with Kate Young, author of The Little Library Cookbook. From the slow-seeping horror of Hanging Rock to coming-of-age tales of tuck boxes and midnight feasts, high jinks and humour, Kate guides the Slightly Foxed magazine team through the school-story tradition and asks why it’s such fertile ground for fiction. On the way we visit the Chalet School, Malory Towers and St Trinian’s, and slip into darker territory with Decline and Fall, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
‘I think I’m an oddity really, but I do my very, very best to write well’
We’re very pleased to announce that Look Back with Love by Dodie Smith is now available in 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.
In her preface to this edition, Dodie Smith’s biographer Valerie Grove describes Look Back with Love as ‘one of the happiest and funniest accounts of an Edwardian upbringing’.
And indeed it is.
‘I love the nature writing of BB (Denys Watkins-Pitchford), who grew up in a vicarage near mine in Northamptonshire, and snap up every copy of Brendon Chase I find in secondhand bookshops.’
From Reverend Richard Coles’s ‘Books that made me’, Guardian
‘Variety, the unexpected, a bit of vulgarity and the ridiculous mixed in with the elevated . . .’ This has been Roger Hudson’s recipe in compiling a commonplace book from material he’s gathered over the past 40 years. Surprise, recognition, amusement, An Englishman’s Commonplace Book calls forth a variety of reactions. Ranging over the centuries, it contains a rich mix of often arresting facts, vivid descriptions, absurd observations and wise words, all organized under subject headings to help find that appropriate quote. Altogether a book for the times and a perfect present. With Father’s Day approaching we thought some of you may appreciate a few gift ideas for the father figures in your lives. All items can be wrapped in handsome brown paper, tied up with our smart and understated cream ribbon and sent off to the recipient, or to you to hand over in person, in good time for Sunday 20 June.
While preparing for a trip to ‘Laurie Lee country’ – the Cotswolds – Kate Young bakes a batch of Eccles cakes, enjoyed by the author in his childhood. We lined up in the cold, not noticing the cold, waiting for…
We’re delighted to report that the new Summer issue of Slightly Foxed (No. 70) has now left the printing press at Smith Settle and will start to arrive with readers in the UK very soon and elsewhere over the next few weeks. With it, as usual, you’ll find a copy of our latest Readers’ Catalogue, detailing new books, our backlist, selected seasonal reading and other offers and bundles. We hope it will provide plenty of recommendations for reading off the beaten track this summer. As ever, we look forward to the flurry of emails, letters, postcards and telephone calls that the turn of the new quarter brings – it’s a joy to correspond with our readers. We do hope you’ll enjoy the new issue of the magazine, wherever in the world you are.
Born in 1955, Nicholas Hely Hutchinson studied at St Martin’s School of Art. Since his first exhibition in 1984 he has exhibited consistently in London, Dublin and Hong Kong, and his work is now in many private and corporate collections.…
Introducing the latest addition to the Slightly Foxed Editions list, No. 55: Still Life. The historian Richard Cobb, famous for his brilliant books on France and the French Revolution, his inspirational teaching and his unconventional behaviour, grew up in the 1920s and ’30s in the quiet and deeply conventional town of Tunbridge Wells. In this unusual memoir he recreates his childhood in entrancing detail. The book is indeed a ‘still life’, a snapshot of a miniature world caught at a particular moment in time. Yet every page contains some wonderfully recaptured human or geographical detail which stays in the mind and brings the town and its people colourfully alive again. ‘Strange and wonderful,’ wrote Hilary Spurling in the Observer when the book was first published. And indeed it is.
Looking back over the past strange and difficult months, it’s cheering to see some of the good things that have come out of the ‘new normal’. One is Bookshop.org, a website launched last autumn to enable independent bookshops to continue trading online through the pandemic, which generated £1 million profit for indie bookshops in its first four months. It has enabled many a struggling bookshop to avoid furloughing staff and help pay its running costs and we hope it will gather strength in the online fight to challenge the behemoth that is Amazon. Definitely worth checking out.
While staying recently in Chiswick, I went on a literary pilgrimage to Glebe Street, where Anthony Burgess and his wife Lynn lived in the 1960s. I wasn’t sure what I would do when I got to No. 24. Genuflect at the garden gate? Halfway down the street, a triangulation took place. The postman came out of a front gate, a woman arrived from the opposite direction and stopped him, and I stepped aside to circumvent them. As I did so, I heard the woman say, ‘Have you got anything for No. 24?’
Richard Cobb’s first book in English was A Second Identity (1969), a title he chose to show how a middle-class Englishman became not just a historian of France but a historian who effectively became French, a man who had learned to say and even feel different things on opposite sides of the Channel. He had spent many years in Paris, living in arrondissements on both banks of the Seine, carrying out a prodigious amount of research in the Archives Nationales, and writing almost always in French. He was chuffed when Frenchmen mistook his nationality. ‘Vous êtes Belge?’ they might ask, or better still, ‘Vous êtes du Nord?’ for he loved to be thought a native of the textile towns of Lille or Roubaix.
In my baking cupboard, at the very back of the top shelf, there is an open bag of wheatgerm. It has survived one house move and more than six years of ownership, and it is depleted by only one loaf’s worth. Laurie Colwin is to blame.
The two books take the form of the intimate memoirs of Claudius himself, telling of his unlikely ascent to the imperial throne, and his surprisingly successful thirteen-year reign. Previously he had been known around Rome as Claudius the Idiot, or Clau-Clau-Claudius the Stammerer, and regarded as being in general an axe short of the full fasces. After his death the younger Seneca wrote a satire on Claudius’s death, The Pumpkinification of Claudius, in which the Emperor dies giving a noisy fart and saying, ‘Oh, good heavens, I believe I’ve made a mess of myself.’ ‘Whether this is actually so I can’t say,’ writes Seneca, ‘but all agree that he always made a mess of things.’
Picture the scene: a heavyweight London literary event in the 1930s. Two well-known women novelists, chatting. ‘My novels won’t live, Ivy,’ says Rose Macaulay to Ivy Compton-Burnett. ‘Yours may.’
Children, as any parent will tell you, are innocent beings whose sensibilities it is the first duty of every parent to protect. They are sensitive, impressionable marshmallows, easily swayed, all too often led astray. St Ignatius of Loyola warns us that if he is given the child he will mould the man; Lenin likewise cautions, ‘Give us the child for eight years [or, according to some sources, four] and it will be a Bolshevik forever.’ As thunder tails lightning, it follows that the greatest care must be taken when giving children anything to read.
Childsplay was published in 1961. It was Eda Lord’s first novel, though now it would probably be called a memoir, and is an account of her childhood (the first-person narrator is unnamed), starting in 1911 when she was 4 and ending in 1917. The first and last chapters are set in Evanston, Illinois, where Eda’s formidable, regal grandmother lived; the rest takes place in the wilds of Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
At the time of writing, the town of Tewkesbury, in the north-west corner of Gloucestershire, has been cut off by the flooding of its four rivers: the Severn and Avon, at whose confluence it stands, and smaller streams named Swilgate and Carrant. Only the great Norman abbey, with its necklace of Gothic chapels, rises above the turbid brown tides that surge across the meadows. England is more richly watered than elsewhere in northern Europe, but now this very same element seems thoroughly hostile to the humans who planted the woods, ploughed the fields and staked the hedges enclosing them.
When I was young I thought I knew exactly where the real Shangri-La was. It was the land of Hunza, in north-west Pakistan, or if not, then Gilgit or Chitral, and those magical names remained with me as I grew up. Years later I was clearing out my father’s things and discovered a worn, spineless, much-used book on his shelves. It was called Language Hunting in the Karakorum. More years passed before I discovered where and what the Karakorum are and where my identification of Hunza with Shangri-La had come from.
In the late 1780s the librarian at the Bohemian castle of Dux, fifty miles from Prague, was trying to finish his autobiography. His employer, Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein, chamberlain to the Emperor, was an amiable man, but in his absence his jealous major- domo Feldkirchner made the librarian’s life a misery. The servants disregarded his orders, the cook served him cold, inedible meals, dogs were encouraged to bark outside his room at night, and during the day a hunting horn with a peculiarly unpleasant tone was sounded at intervals. Everyone in the castle was encouraged to laugh at the elderly man’s over-meticulous manners and old-fashioned dress. All in all, it was remarkable that Giacomo Casanova succeeded in completing his masterpiece – though despite its enormous length it still ends so abruptly that there might have been a few more pages to come.
‘He had thought deeply about this house, and knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted, in the first place, a real house, made with real materials. He didn’t want mud for walls, earth for floor, tree branches for rafters and grass for roof. He wanted wooden walls, all tongue-and-groove. He wanted a galvanised roof and a wooden ceiling . . . The kitchen would be a shed in the yard; a neat shed, connected to the house by a covered way. And his house would be painted. The roof would be red, the outside walls ochre and the windows white.’
I have a childhood memory of being ill in bed, bored and grumpy until my mother came up with an idea of genius. This must have been in late 1953 or 1954 because we had a children’s version of The Ascent of Everest and, like most people at the time, were captivated by the con- quest of the world’s highest mountain. My mother showed me how to position my knees under the eiderdown, roped two miniature naked pink plastic figures together with blue wool and we re-enacted the ascent. Through the Khumbu icefall, up the South Col and the Hillary Step and on to the summit. The magic of those names.
Ring of Bright Water caught me off guard. Gavin Maxwell’s memorial to a year of his life shared with an otter and glorious secular hymn to the West Highland seaboard of Scotland hit me between the eyes, thumped me in the solar plexus, then threw a bucket of cold water over me. So I sat up and read it again.
When publicly embarrassed by how poorly read I am, and especially so when being pressed by my family, I often claim to be rereading a book because ‘it’s so many years now since I first came across it’. In fact the plain truth is I haven’t got a clue about the book in question because I have never opened it.
A friend at college many decades ago was the daughter of a respected Kensington GP who was deeply involved in the history of the area. On one occasion when I was visiting she mentioned that her father was discreetly relieved at the recent death of a particularly eccentric and demanding patient, a novelist who, as a leading light also of the local history society, had had to be treated with especial tact.
‘Who was she?’ I asked.
‘Oh, she’s mildly famous, I think, but you’ve probably not heard of her. I wouldn’t have except that she’s been the bane of Daddy’s life. Rachel Ferguson.’
I was once interviewing Kingsley Amis when he mused, apropos of nothing, ‘Quinn . . . a Manx name, isn’t it?’ I mumbled that I thought it was Irish myself, since that’s where my forebears came from. ‘Yes, from the Isle of Man,’ he continued, ‘derived from McGuinn.’ Was it? The curious thing is that thirty years later I still haven’t bothered to find out. It feels of no more consequence to me than taking my own fingerprint. Amis’s friend Anthony Powell, a connoisseur of pedigree, would have been able to identify the name’s origin and place it exactly in the social pecking order. Not high, I imagine.
Imagination, influence and the invention of infernal desire machines . . . Edmund Gordon, biographer of Angela Carter, guides the Slightly Foxed team through her colourful works and explores the wider realms of magical realism. Witty and wilfully idiosyncratic, Carter conjured sex and death from fairy tales in The Bloody Chamber, used her Somerset Maugham Award money to leave her husband and go to Japan to write, and absorbed the Latin American influences of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. We hear how she enlisted the Marquis de Sade as an ally of feminism, embraced pulp genres and opened doors for David Mitchell, China Miéville, Helen Oyeyemi and more, while always attending to the grammar of the folk story. And, to finish, there are the usual wide-ranging recommendations for reading off the beaten track.
‘Once in a blue moon an encounter with a new book can be like falling in love’ Ariane Bankes, Slightly Foxed Issue 20
Greetings from SF, where we hope our contributors’ articles introduce you to a whole host of books to fall in love with. Or perhaps, at times, the magazine’s reading recommendations reacquaint you with beloved books you might like to revisit. Whether or not you’re new to the novels of Marilynne Robinson, Ariane Bankes states her case for picking up a copy of Housekeeping (and following this with Robinson’s equally acclaimed Gilead series) in her article from SF Issue 20. Please find a link to read the full article below, and we do hope you’ll enjoy it.
We’re about to enjoy the first of two May bank holiday weekends, which is always a welcome portent of summer, but there’s been a bank holiday feel to this past fortnight as well, as restrictions ease and people start to socialize outside. My walk to and from work is now accompanied by the sounds of a city waking up; shutters clattering open in the morning and chatter and clinking glasses in the evening. However, it’s the reopening of bookshops that’s made us most excited. Jess went on a pilgrimage to her favourite branch of Daunt Books in Marylebone as soon as she could, delighted to be browsing the shelves in person. And I’d almost forgotten how wonderfully restorative it can be to duck into the small and friendly Waterstones in Crouch End when passing on a Saturday morning.
‘Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, and underneath our sofa, and on top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves.’
Greetings from SF HQ, where this line from Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris is ringing in our ears as we survey our book-filled scene, roll up our sleeves and spring clean the office in preparation for deliveries of yet more delicious books next month. If you’d like to help us clear a few shelves and take the opportunity to stock up on any Plain Foxed Editions you might have had your eye on, now is the time. By way of thanks for your support over the last year, we’re providing a special offer when you buy pairs or sets of books from this perfectly pocketable series until Friday 7 May. We do hope you enjoy browsing our bookshelves.
A life is made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones: an autobiography must therefore, unless it is to become tedious, be extremely selective, discarding all the inconsequential incidents in one’s life and concentrating upon those that have remained vivid in the memory . . . In the second part of the book, which deals with the time I went flying with the RAF in the Second World War, there was no need to select or discard because every moment was, to me at any rate, totally enthralling.
Greetings from Hoxton Square where we’re hurtling through the spring quarter at pace. When looking at our diaries to plan the week ahead, we were surprised to find that we’ve already landed on 20 April, which, this year, marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Athens. The Battle of Athens (also known as the Battle of Piraeus Harbour) is the name given by Roald Dahl to a dog-fighting air battle, fought between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe towards the end of the Battle of Greece. Dahl describes this airborne adventure in his second memoir, Going Solo, which is available in a handsome Slightly Foxed Edition. He was clearly a brilliant pilot, and his account of what it was like to confront the enemy from the cramped cockpit of a Hurricane, with minimal training in how to fly it, is stomach-churning.
In this twentieth-century story of a quest for beauty, the writer Laura Freeman introduces us to Jim Ede, a man who, in creating Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, changed the way we look at art. We follow Jim from the trenches of the First World War to Lady Ottoline Morrell’s literary parties in Bloomsbury and a curating job at the Tate. He collected artworks by his friends Ben Nicholson and David Jones, acquired the estate of the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and designed a house in Tangiers that became a sanctuary for soldiers. These were stepping stones towards Jim turning derelict slum cottages into a home and gallery, a space for both tea and tours. And, as ever, we share recommendations for reading off the beaten track.
Our series of recommendations for good reading via the magazine’s archives has brought us to a letter of the alphabet we thought could prove troublesome. However, all fears have been eased as it offers up a writer Daphne du Maurier ‘admired among all others’, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, whose works were published under the pseudonym ‘Q’. Du Maurier was far from Q’s only admirer. Helene Hanff enjoyed a volume of lectures by Quiller-Couch, and was inspired to seek out all the titles he recommended. This led to a correspondence with an antiquarian bookshop in London that lasted many years, and these letters became the beloved 84, Charing Cross Road. Helene pays her debt to her reading mentor in a subsequent memoir, Q’s Legacy. Derek Parker states his own case for Q’s legacy in this piece from Slightly Foxed Issue 21. Please find a link to read the full article below. We do hope you’ll enjoy it.
The Biographers’ Club is now accepting submissions for The Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2021. This year’s judges are Susannah Clapp, Horatio Clare and John de Falbe.
Greetings from Slightly Foxed where the team in the office are looking forward to an extended Easter weekend and the prospect of a healthy dose of fresh air, feasting and, most importantly, much good reading. Meantime, we’ll leave you with a suitably seasonal extract from the final volume of Adrian Bell’s trilogy of lightly fictionalized memoirs, The Cherry Tree. As SF Editor Hazel Wood writes in her preface to our edition, ‘in these books [Bell’s] keen and sympathetic eye combined with the practicality of the farmer to create some of the most poetic yet down-to-earth accounts ever written of life in the English countryside’. We’ll be in touch again next week. Until then, we do hope you’ll enjoy reading this extract and browsing our bookshelves.
Spring has arrived, and with it the delivery to the office of our new Spring issue, the latest SF Edition, Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and the fifth in our series of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels, Dawn Wind. Ahead of each delivery, we pore over spreadsheets, worry about stock levels, map out square feet and available bookshelf space, flick through fat folders of pre-orders and discuss quantities over the phone with Tracey at Smith Settle, our printers. And then the great day dawns . . .
Greetings from Hoxton Square where we’ve travelled through the magazine’s archives and landed in the Wild West to provide some gripping weekend reading. Christopher Rush’s piece on the ‘incredible and enthralling adventures’ of True Grit by Charles Portis appeared in Slightly Foxed Issue 39. Please find a link to read the full article below. We do hope you’ll enjoy it.
The artist Barrie Cooke had fishing in common with Ted Hughes, and mud and art in common with Seamus Heaney. Dr Mark Wormald, a scholar on the life and writings of Ted Hughes, has brought to light an extraordinary haul of poems, letters and drawings documenting a decades-long triangular friendship and a shared love of poetry and nature. He describes the spine-tingling discovery of Barrie’s cardboard box stuffed with correspondence and traces its history, starting with the first supper at Barrie’s Kilkenny home, and then at Jerpoint, also on the River Nore, where the trio forged their friendship, Seamus began Station Island and a poet’s haven flourished. From Ted’s dream of a burning fox man, climbing into Carrowkeel passage tombs and visits from Robert Lowell and Tom Paulin to fishing diaries, pike spoons and a stuffed trout, subsurface treasures are dredged up as our literary sifting takes us off the beaten track.
‘In Dawn Wind, the fifth of her novels on Roman and post-Roman Britain, Rosemary Sutcliff is, as always, bang on the money . . .’ So writes Sue Gaisford in her article on the latest addition to our Slightly Foxed Cubs series of classic children’s books, and we couldn’t agree more. We’re delighted to have published Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dawn Wind this month and, for those of you who have placed orders for this title, it will be with you very soon, if not already. Though most of her books were written primarily for children, the flesh-and-blood reality of Rosemary Sutcliff’s characters, her convincing plots and her brilliant reimagining of everyday life in a remote and mysterious Britain have always attracted adult readers too. Dawn Wind is no exception. Within its opening pages we’re introduced to Owain, the book’s teenage hero who has both Roman and British blood in his veins, and learn that he is the sole survivor of a terrible battle with the Saxons. We do hope you’ll enjoy this latest offering, whether you’re a young reader or simply young at heart.
We are delighted to announce that the winner of the Biographers’ Club Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2020 is Heather Clark for Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath.
‘I could go anywhere I liked in the world. There was nothing to stop me, I would be penniless, free and could just pack up and walk away.’
Introducing the latest addition to the Slightly Foxed Editions list, No. 54: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. When Laurie Lee set out on foot from his home in the Gloucestershire village of Slad one midsummer morning in 1935 he knew he was saying farewell to the idyllic country boyhood that he would later capture so unforgettably in Cider with Rosie. He was 19 and off to see the world with only his violin for company. He was aiming for London but decided to go via Southampton because he had never seen the sea. And so began a year of wandering that would take him from the north of Spain south to the Mediterranean.
The White Horse Bookshop is a proudly independent bookshop in a renovated Tudor townhouse in Marlborough, Wiltshire. Although their doors are closed to the public for the moment, the bookshop is very much open for business through their recently updated website. Wearing a smart new look for spring, it’s replete with recommendations, highlights and new books lists for customers’ online browsing pleasure. The booksellers are in full swing orchestrating click and collect and postal order services. A trip to Wiltshire to browse this beautiful bookshop in person is high on our list of bookish destinations to visit when we can. In the meantime, it was a pleasure to speak to bookseller Angus to learn more about life at White Horse Books.
We’re delighted to announce that the new Spring issue of Slightly Foxed (No. 69) has left the printing press at Smith Settle and will start to arrive with readers in the UK very soon and elsewhere over the next few weeks. We hope it will provide plenty of recommendations for reading off the beaten track this spring. With it, as usual, you’ll find a copy of our latest Readers’ Catalogue, detailing new books, our backlist, recommended seasonal reading and other offers and bundles.
Niki Bowers trained and worked for many years as a graphic designer, later turning to printmaking. Using traditional methods, linocut prints are made from multiple blocks, hand-cut and printed in limited editions. These original prints reflect the landscape and wildlife…
Last year, in response to a public consultation on the viability of my local public library, I offered to volunteer my unskilled services every Friday afternoon. This was my small way of signalling to the county council how precious a resource I believed the library to be, even if I hadn’t visited it that often since my children left school. (I would need three lifetimes to read the books already residing on my own shelves.) The library is situated in a reasonably, but not excessively, prosperous small town, with a mixed-age population; like a thousand others across the country, I guess. I was gratefully welcomed by the professional librarians and set to work putting returned books back in their proper place on the shelves.
Plot: towards lunchtime, a male employee in a large corporate office building (the first-person narrator) discovers that the shoelace of his left shoe has snapped precisely twenty-eight hours after the right one snapped: a thought-provoking coincidence. Clutching his Penguin copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and pausing first for a pee in the men’s room, he descends the escalator to buy a bag of popcorn, a hot-dog, a cookie, a carton of milk and a new pair of shoelaces. Then he goes back up the escalator to his office, carrying his small bags. That’s it.
Can anyone reconcile us with death?
Michel de Montaigne, one of the great sages of the Renaissance, tried his best; and he was trying to reconcile himself as much as any readers he might have. ‘We must always be booted and ready to go,’ he writes in an early essay. To be ready we need to familiarize our- selves with this final destination. ‘So,’ he tells us, ‘I have formed the habit of having death continually present, not merely in my imagination, but in my mouth . . . He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.’
I first met Sybille Bedford in London in the early 1980s when an old friend of mine, Patrick Woodcock, who at the time was Sybille’s doctor, invited us both to dinner. As a keen admirer of Sybille’s writing, I was thrilled at the prospect.
I think we can all agree on the restorative qualities of a country walk. Certainly, since I moved to Sussex, I have come to value walking as much more than a basic mode of transport, surrounded as I am by the tranquillity of fields, footpaths and woods. I only wish I could convince my daughter of the splendours on our doorstep.
Julia Strachey was a writer of rare talent and originality who, in a lifetime of writing, managed to complete and publish only two novels and a number of sketches and short stories. I knew nothing of her until I happened to come across a Penguin reprint of those novels, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and An Integrated Man. I was immediately bowled over by their brilliance and originality, and was surprised to discover that, in effect, they are all there is. What stopped this gifted writer from finishing and publishing more?
Nobody likes losing a pet. But for Owain it is the very last straw. His father and his older brother were killed in the last great battle against the invading Saxons, a battle which he himself barely survived; he gave up his own freedom and became enslaved, to save the life of a sick girl he had befriended; his country, his home and his own family have been either overrun or destroyed and now Dog, his only friend, has been cruelly, pointlessly killed. Who could blame him for feeling suicidal?
After a lifetime of teaching English literature, I have accumulated a private and rather eclectic pantheon of great (mainly modern) novels, in which J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country holds a central place. Carr finished it in 1978, and it was published in 1980 by the Harvester Press, and then by Penguin in paperback. The novel received more acclaim in America than in Britain, although it did make the shortlist for the Booker Prize, where it lost out to one of William Golding’s less successful novels. In due course, as was Carr’s wont – because he thought little of most commercial publishers – he bought back the rights and published it under his own imprint of the Quince Tree Press, from which (blessedly) copies are still available (as are Carr’s seven other novels).
A night in the autumn of 2002. I am woken by a scream which threatens to blow the chimneys off the house. I rush into the next room, pick up my 3-month-old son and do my best to comfort him. His tiny face is purple and he’s thrashing and writhing in pain. My husband is away on a business trip. What can I do? I have no idea.
At a loose end after university in the 1980s I went to Budapest to learn Hungarian. My teacher gave our group a Hungarian novel from which we studied passages in class. It was a slim book with an enticing cover photograph of the Bridge of Sighs and an intriguing title: Utas és holdvilág – literally, ‘Traveller and Moonlight’.
The Great North Road, the A1, bypasses the villages that used to punctuate it and so misses out on the inns where John Byng, Lord Torrington, regularly used to stay on his touring holidays during the 1780s and ’90s. I have driven along it from London to Newark and back again far too often and am grateful to him for helping me relieve the boredom by recalling his experiences at the Sun in Biggleswade, the George at Buckden (good cream there, and a political barber), the Wheatsheaf on Alconbury Hill, or the Haycock on the Nene at Wandsford. They are recorded in the travel journals of this retired Colonel of the Foot Guards – he was only the 5th Viscount Torrington for the last few weeks of his life after his elder brother died in 1812 without an heir.
‘For my son Tom. Since it was a vain attempt to match his prodigious literary output that got me into this situation in the first place.’
This slightly gushy (and therefore untypical) dedication at the front of Mrs Malory Wonders Why was the first clue I had as to how and why Hazel Holt created Sheila Malory. Thank goodness she did. Her stories about a middle-aged widow who solves murder mysteries saw me through a month in 2017 when two of my sons, simultaneously and both on the other side of the world, were seriously ill. Similarly, in March 2020 when it became clear that a pandemic was unavoidable and we had better hunker down or perish, I hunted out my store of Mrs Malories again. Everyone has an author whose work they turn to when it seems like the end of the world as we know it, and Hazel Holt is mine. She is something of a mystery herself, though.
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
That first arresting sentence of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four transports us immediately into a world that is real enough (the swirl of gritty dust, the acidic sickly gin, the smell of boiled cabbage) but is also alien and fantastic. Even now, in the age of the 24-hour clock, that number thirteen startles you, for no clock ever does physically strike thirteen, and its undercurrent of unluckiness adds to the sense of unease. It’s one of the best opening sentences I’ve ever read.
In the end, it was no surprise that I turned to books in the aftermath of my father’s death; as much as anything else, a love of reading, and a confidence in the calming power of the written word, was one of the many things that he gave me. What was more unexpected was the identity of the book that offered the greatest solace.
An annual pre-Christmas treat for me is discovering which books have impressed the great and the good of the literary world over the previous twelve months. The lists in the heavyweight papers invariably give me two or three ideas for spending the book tokens I know are coming my way. One year Ian McEwan praised John Williams’s Stoner, which I found so strong that I didn’t hesitate a few years later to follow up another of McEwan’s recommendations, the more so as he wasn’t alone in picking it. At least two other contributors had been struck by Reunion, a novella of under a hundred pages written by Fred Uhlman, a German-Jewish painter and writer. When it was first published in 1971 Reunion went unnoticed; and though it was a little more successful when reissued a few years later, it wasn’t until a further reissue in 2015 that it was recognized as the masterpiece it is.
Although I’m not seeing Hattie and Jess in person at the moment (we’re in the office one at a time for now), we’re making our presence known to each other, leaving books we’ve enjoyed on desks to be discovered the next morning. Sometimes a bag of crisps or bar of chocolate accompanies the book, or, during an especially frantic week, a bottle of wine, but the books are the main thing. A peril – and perk – of ordering in books for subscribers is that we inevitably order some for ourselves. Just a couple of recent book swaps have included In the Kitchen, a collection of food-writing recommended by Jess and delicious to dip into, and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, an unusual and beautiful book I felt compelled to press upon the others and then include in our forthcoming Spring Readers’ Catalogue.
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 give you a chance to acquire some of the original hardbacks you may have missed. We’re providing some special offers when buying multiples of these perfectly pocketable paperbacks, 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.
Daisy Dunn, historian and biographer of Catullus and Pliny, sets our scene in ancient Rome and Greece, entertaining the Slightly Foxed team with literature of love and war, satire and myth, and amplifying echoes of the classics through the ages. We begin with Homer’s monsters and memorials of fallen men, then take a tour of the ancient world, from Catullus’ erotic poetry and Lysistrata’s sex strike to the eruption of Vesuvius and Suetonius’ lives of extraordinary emperors. In a more contemporary turn, F. Scott Fitzgerald borrows Gatsby from the Satyricon, and Mary Renault writes historical novels and lovers’ names in wine. And there’s the usual round-up of recommended reading from off the beaten track.
How much we miss movement in our suddenly still, stay-at-home pandemic era. Gone the footloose and fancy-free travel of our rose tinted imaginations, replaced by domestic gloom, pessimistic prospects and shrinking horizons. There seems something pleasingly necessary, then, about revisiting one of the great literary road trips, which celebrates movement for the sake of it and revels in youthful, devil-may-care vagabondism in a Europe basking in its last years of peace.
I lent my copy of Barbara Hepworth’s A Pictorial Autobiography to an illustrator friend who, for reasons of distance and diaries, I rarely see. We had been talking about children and creativity and whether one must necessarily restrict the other: the easel, the laptop, the pram in the hall. I said she must read Hepworth and posted her my copy. It arrived. She thanked me. After that: nothing. Nothing for months and months and a year, and for months after that. I nursed a perverse and very British grievance. I couldn’t possibly ask for it back, because that would be rude. Instead, I did the proper and polite thing of raining resentment, curses and hellfire on her head every time my eye caught the gap in the bookcase.
How cheering it is to see that there are signs of spring now both in the air and in the step of the people walking along Old Street and in the little streets around Hoxton Square. It feels as if Londoners are tentatively starting to pick up the threads of their lives again. As we’ve reported before, life in the Slightly Foxed office has not in fact been so very different during this last extraordinary year, except perhaps that we’ve been busier than usual – support from you for which we’ll be forever grateful. Anna, Hattie and Jess have been brilliant at keeping the show on the road, whatever the restrictions, and now Jennie is back with us from maternity leave – another reason to be cheerful.
Greetings from Slightly Foxed HQ where we thought it high time to continue our tour through the magazine’s archives and provide a free article – and a handful of book recommendations – for some weekend reading. Daniel Worsley’s piece on The Merchant of Prato by Iris Origo appeared in SF Issue 66 and, for those of you who crave a change of scene, takes us back to fourteenth-century Tuscany. Please find a link to read the full article below. We do hope you’ll enjoy it.
We’ve been tidying the bookshelves to make room for our new spring publications and, lo and behold, we’re down to the last copies of our handsome limited edition of Marrying Out, Harold Carlton’s brilliantly observed, irresistibly hilarious memoir. If you’ve been thinking about adding this delightful book to your collection, now’s the time. Please read on for an extract, introduced by Oliver Pritchett.
There wasn’t space to include all the intriguing background information provided by Roger Hudson for his piece on ‘Torrington’s Tours’ which appeared in Issue 69. So we thought we’d share it here with any readers as fascinated as we were by the life and character of the eccentric and aristocratic author of the diaries, John Byng, Lord Torrington, and his tours through the English countryside during the 1780s and ’90s.
Lovely though Christmas is, I must admit I also enjoy January. There’s something very satisfying about taking down the Christmas tree, tidying the house, finishing all the leftovers in the larder, putting up a calendar for the new year, opening a fresh diary and generally taking stock before spring arrives. This year, during our third lockdown, these small routines seem more important than ever. There’s an austere beauty too in the winter landscape. The sheep have cropped the grass to reveal every dip and curve in the land, the bracken has died back and the trees, now without even their tattered autumn leaves, have become living sculptures of twisted branches reaching into the sky. The winter light, low as dusk approaches, transforms the landscape and spotlights here a ridge, there a cleft in the valley.
Anthony Wells worked at The Wiener Holocaust Library in London for a decade. In this episode he leads the Slightly Foxed editors into the history of the library, which holds one of the most extensive archives on the Holocaust and the Nazi era. We travel to Germany, Amsterdam, New York and Tel Aviv, but it is people rather than places that the library remembers with its annals of personal stories. Dr Alfred Wiener, a German Jew who fought in the First World War, was one of the first to note the rise of the Nazi Party, and he began to assemble an archive of information in order to undermine their activities. From downfall by documentation in the Nuremberg Trial to a tracing service made up of millions of records, we learn how The Wiener Library ensures that those who disappeared are not forgotten.
Slightly Foxed and The Biographers’ Club are delighted to announce the shortlist for the Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize 2020.
Greetings from all of us at Slightly Foxed. In light of the latest restrictions in the UK, we wanted to reassure you that we are able to safely dispatch books and goods. Please note that all orders will take a little longer to be dispatched than usual, and we are very grateful for your patience and continued support.
In the spirit of celebrating bookish correspondence, we wanted to draw your attention to one of our well-loved Plain Foxed Editions, 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. The letters between Helene, a feisty, eccentric New York writer, and Frank Doel, a bookseller at Marks & Co. in London, reveal a growing friendship conducted through books.
We’re continuing our travels through the archives, selecting an article for each letter of the alphabet that everyone can read on our website for free. In this piece from Slightly Foxed Issue 42, Michael Holroyd discovers Mary Norton’s The Borrowers in his ‘second childhood’.
The first wave of Christmas cards has started to arrive: ‘Hope you’re staying safe’; ‘All quiet here – only one case in the village’. News of weddings postponed, of holidays cancelled, but also of new babies, of violin exams passed with distinction, of Zoom book groups and lockdown exercise sessions. The end of the kitchen table is piled with packs of Christmas cards still waiting to be sent, but this year there’s a terrible hitch. We can’t find our address book, which has our whole lives in it.
Warm wishes from Hoxton Square where Christmas cards from readers are cheering up the bookshelves, wrapping paper is running off rolls and post bags are filling up and weighing down the post van as we ready ourselves to close the office for Christmas next week. The final post of the year will leave the office on Monday afternoon (21 December). Please order as soon as possible to give us enough time to pack and post your goods out in time for Christmas. For delivery before the 25th (UK) we suggest you also select First Class or Special Delivery as your postal option on the website or over the phone. For any last minute presents, or for items to be posted outside the UK, you can order all goods on our website and have a printable gift card sent to you or directly to the gift recipient by email. Meantime we will leave you with a seasonal excerpt from Christopher Rush’s article on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, published in Slightly Foxed Issue 60, and we do hope you enjoy reading it.
‘Slightly Foxed is another brilliant imprint, publishing small hardback books from unfairly neglected authors. This year’s finest includes Christopher Robbins’ hilarious The Empress of Ireland, an account of the friendship between an English journalist and Brian Desmond Hurst, a flamboyant film director . . .’
In this seasonal episode, the Slightly Foxed team are guided through a snowstorm of winter writing over twelve centuries by the literary critic and author of Weatherland, Alexandra Harris. The tour takes us from Anglo-Saxon mead halls and monsters to Renaissance bodily humours, then on through cool, translucent Enlightenment weather into the dark cloud of the nineteenth century and beyond. We visit frost-fair carnivals on the frozen Thames with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, brave the Brontës’ wild moorland, stay steamed up indoors with Jane Austen, sink into Dickens’s pea-soupers and see in the ‘year’s midnight’ with John Donne as we listen to a winter’s tale through literature.
Greetings from Slightly Foxed. Parcels and packages are flying out of Hoxton Square to readers at a great rate and, whether they are presents for a fellow bibliophile or bookish gems that have caught your eye this season, we do hope they bring much literary cheer. There’s still time for us to help with gifts for booklovers, and we’d like to draw your attention to our Slightly Foxed Editions – beautifully produced pocket hardbacks, just the right size to hold in the hand and with a ribbon marker to keep your place. Perfectly designed to curl up with, these reissues of classic memoirs are highly individual and absorbing reads. And, if you have missed out on a title or two from our series of limited-editions, our Plain Editions come in the same neat pocket format as the original SF Editions and will happily fill any gaps in your collection – as well as forming a delightful uniform series of their own, bound in duck-egg blue cloth. For those of you in need of a good book, do seize the chance to stock up now. We hope you enjoy browsing our bookshelves.
‘I continue to enjoy reading and rereading Slightly Foxed and the books bought from the catalogues. Feasts indeed!’
Warm wishes from SF HQ, where festive spirits are high and feasting is on the menu: sipping and supping, hearty spreads of good reading and groaning tables (or in this case parcels and post bags) of seasonal treats. Present ideas for booklovers are abundant here at Slightly Foxed, and this week we’re shining the spotlight on our picks from other publishers’ bookshelves alongside our own wares. Please scroll down for recommendations selected on a similar theme. Whether you’re in need of a few good books for yourself or as gifts for someone you’re fond of this season, we hope you’ll find these suggestions helpful.
I’ve always loved the small room I work in. It’s snug and light and looks out into the branches of a big sycamore in the next-door garden. It’s felt like a haven, a place where I can shut the door, settle down and quietly get on with things. Until now, that is. The more lockdown continues and the more pressingly my little room demands my presence, the more hostile I feel to it. It’s like an old friend who’s suddenly become unreasonably demanding. That’s because it’s where my computer is and now most essentials of life seem to have gone online – food, clothes and present shopping, work meetings, events, doctor’s appointments, friendly drinks – it’s all become virtual.
This year, more than ever, has shown how important it is to support and champion local and independent bookshops. Although a grand tour of bookshops might not be possible right now, we look forward to the day when we can rummage through bookshelves and buy recommended reading from convivial booksellers around the country. In the meantime, it is our great pleasure to head north to Edinburgh and pay a virtual visit to the latest bookshop in the Topping & Co family. Tilly from the shop has kindly provided us with a good dose of bookish sustenance. The shop is open for browsing to local readers, and we hope to explore the handcrafted bookcases in person when we can.
‘Every single book Slightly Foxed publish is superb. (And beautifully made.) Just pluck at random from the catalogue and happiness is guaranteed.’ So declared a Foxed reader just the other day, and we’re delighted to add a new book to our list of cloth-bound pocket hardbacks this winter: SF Edition No. 53, Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee. Perfectly designed to curl up with, our reissues of classic memoirs are highly individual and absorbing reads, and the latest addition is no exception. Laurie Lee described this, his best-loved and best-known book, as ‘a recollection of early boyhood’, adding the acknowledgement that ‘some facts may have been distorted by time’. Whether or not they have, as one critic put it, ‘Cider with Rosie seems true as long as you’re reading it – and that’s the most important thing.’ It’s not just a rosy picture of a rural past, but a magical evocation of growing up in a lost world that rings emotionally true.
Greetings, dear readers. We’re delighted to announce that the new winter issue of Slightly Foxed is being sent out to subscribers this week and should soon begin to land on doormats around the world. We’d like to reassure you that we are dispatching parcels safely, so please do place orders as usual. There’s still plenty of time to order subscriptions, books and goods in time for Christmas. Please do go forth and browse our online Readers’ Catalogue, where you’ll find our cloth-bound limited-edition hardbacks, our popular Plain Editions and paperbacks, a collection of literary bundles and 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 . . .
The Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley takes the Slightly Foxed team on a tour of literary landscapes, from the lochs of the Trossachs and the mountainous Cairngorms to Aldo Leopold’s sand county in Wisconsin and Barry Lopez’s Arctic. Together they trace the chain of writers who have influenced Jim, from Robert Burns and Wordsworth to Thoreau and Walt Whitman, and see nature through the eyes of his hero, the great Scottish naturalist and photographer Seton Gordon. They discuss how folklore has demonized the wolf while Jim believes its reintroduction could hugely benefit the ecology of the Scottish landscape. And finally they venture off the beaten track with this month’s wide-ranging reading recommendations.
Despite everything that is going on in the world right now, a pair of Foxes scurried off to South West London on the rather dreary and wet evening of Wednesday 30 September 2020 to raise a glass with Roger and booksellers Johnny and Boojum at John Sandoe Books. It was an absolute joy to be able to celebrate Roger and the publication of An Englishman’s Commonplace Book at one of our favourite independent bookshops.
After probably the strangest year that most of us have ever experienced, London is starting to feel more familiar. There are lighted office windows around Hoxton Square, and there’s traffic again in Old Street, now including shoals of bikes, some darting in and out of the cars and vans like minnows, some wobbling dangerously. There are a lot of new and inexperienced bike riders in London these days, and whether you’re walking or driving you have to look out. At Slightly Foxed the office is buzzing, and readers and contributors have been active too, putting pen to paper, or rather finger to key, to give the two of us plenty to read after lockdown. Sadly we had to cancel Readers’ Day this year, but we’ve booked the Art Workers’ Guild for 6 November 2021, and we look forward very much to seeing you there.
This story might have made for lurid telling, but the podcasters let James set it out plainly before interjecting with pertinent questions and steering the discussion to the Lambs’ work. The respectful quietness of Slightly Foxed is one of its virtues. Where other podcasts suffer from a crescendo of competing voices, this is steady and understated and, yes, all the cosier for being so.
Coralie Bickford-Smith is one of the most renowned designers in the publishing industry, especially recognized and celebrated for her illustrated covers of Penguin’s clothbound classics. Her first book, The Fox and the Star, was named Waterstones Book of the Year.…
Greetings from Slightly Foxed HQ. We’d like to reassure all our dear readers that we are dispatching books and goods safely during this time, so please do place orders as usual. Post is taking a little longer to arrive, both in the UK and overseas, but we endeavour to provide you with good reading as soon as possible. We are, as always, very grateful for your support. Speaking of good reading, and to bring some sunshine to this misty November day, we’re escaping to the countryside in the latest free article from the archive, and enjoying parsnip wine with Sarah Perry. Sarah’s article was published in Slightly Foxed Issue 58, and also appears as the preface to our edition of The Blue Field by John Moore. We do hope you’ll enjoy it.
We were delighted to publish two new titles in our Slightly Foxed Cubs series of highly collectable classic children’s books last month: Frontier Wolf and The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. Sutcliff’s four great novels set during the last years of the Roman occupation of Britain, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, Frontier Wolf and The Lantern Bearers (winner of the 1959 Carnegie Prize), tell the story of several generations of the Aquila family, from the Empire’s glory days to its final withdrawal, weakened by increasing pressure from Saxon raiders and internal power struggles at home. Though most of her books were written primarily for children, the flesh-and-blood reality of her characters, her convincing plots and her brilliant reimagining of everyday life in a remote and mysterious Britain have always attracted adult readers too. They have been difficult to find for some time and we’re delighted to be reissuing them with their original illustrations.
A few days before my birth my father returned from an Arctic expedition. He’d been away for several months on Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole – exploring the glaciers, fjords and mountains east of Ny-Alesund, earth’s most northerly civilian settlement at 78° 55’ N. It was night and raining hard when he got back. From Svalbard he’d flown down to Tromsø, then Luton, then caught several trains and finally a bus to Penclawdd, a village in south Wales. My mother, sitting by the window, saw him walking up the shining road, pack on his back. Once home he was amazed to see how pregnant she was, how round her belly.
Sayre’s Law states: ‘In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.’ I’ve noticed this in the world of booze. Some people take the question of whether a Martini should be shaken or stirred, or whether to put fruit in an Old Fashioned, very seriously. For a writer on the subject, there are two ways out of this bind: one is to take a bluff no-nonsense approach and admit that in the end it doesn’t really matter. The other is to take it so seriously that it verges on but doesn’t quite drop into ridiculousness. You can see the contrasting approaches in my two favourite writers on the subject, Kingsley Amis and Bernard DeVoto.
I must have bought The Big City soon after it was published in 1962, when Penguin was branching out from its then standard paperback format into slightly larger books with pictures, often cartoons. It cost me 4 shillings, and it is still on our shelves next to the bathroom, reserved for ‘rather special’ titles, to be revisited every few years with wonderment and nostalgia for a now-vanished post-war Britain.
I first came across William Trevor in the early nineties when my son came home from school with The Children of Dynmouth, his GCSE set text. I’ve been an ardent fan ever since, although I must admit that in one’s robust forties Trevor’s themes (sadness, loneliness, cruelty, the sheer arbitrariness of life’s awfulness) can be relished in a way that becomes increasingly difficult with age, as one’s skin thins and that arbitrariness begins to bite.
In 1957 I was a schoolboy in what was then known as Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, when Arnold Jones, my English teacher, insisted that we all go with him to hear his compatriot, the Welsh author and actor Emlyn Williams, who was on tour with his one-man tribute to Dylan Thomas, A Boy Growing Up. This performance was a watershed in my appreciation of the spoken and written word. Williams held us spellbound for three hours: a small middle-aged, grey-haired man on a bare stage, bringing to life a child’s Christmas in Wales, making us laugh at Thomas’s self-portrait as a schoolboy drawing ‘a wild guess below the waist’, as a Young Dog with a beer bottle stuck on his finger, and then unexpectedly reducing us to pin-dropping silence with ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ and ‘Death shall have no dominion’. For me, this was the beginning of a lifetime’s enjoyment of the work not just of Dylan Thomas but of Emlyn Williams himself.
Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788) must rank among the best known of unread or partly read books. At over 3,000 pages it is written in the sometimes convoluted style of the eighteenth century and lingers over details which mean little now to most readers, not least disputes over the nature of the Holy Trinity. Yet this Everest of a book asks to be scaled and in the end retirement offered me leisure and the necessary oxygen to make the attempt.
According to my journal I first read Molly Hughes’s memoir A London Child of the 1870s in October 2005, ‘a record of Islington life so charming and droll I’m puzzled as to why I’d not come across it before’. I might not have come across it then either had my wife not given me a copy, just reissued by Persephone Books in its appealing dove-grey livery with William Morris endpapers. It was a perfect choice for someone obsessed by Victorian London in general and Victorian Islington in particular. To my delight the author and her family had lived at No. 1 Canonbury Park North, an address about five minutes’ walk from where I write this. Their house is no longer standing, though the references to Upper Street, Essex Road and Highbury New Park sound a welcoming refrain, and such is the peculiar immediacy of the writing that it takes no very great leap of imagination to see an organ-grinder on the pavement, or a child bowling a hoop, or a tram upon the Holloway Road.
A Brief Pageant of English Verse
I won’t arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
I’ll sanitize the doorknob and make a cup of tea.
I won’t go down to the sea again; I won’t go out at all,
I’ll wander lonely as a cloud from the kitchen to the hall . . .
Our family Bible came from our mum’s side. But our real missals were her poetry books – Come Hither, edited by Walter de la Mare, and The Golden Treasury, edited by Francis Turner Palgrave. Now I have these same books, and they are indeed full of treasure – not least, the pleasure of remembering shared readings, with special emphasis on wordplay and on the almost sensual pleasure of drenching ourselves in emotion.
My dad turned me on to Ray Bradbury. The short stories had captivated him in his late teens and early twenties, and on his shelf was a two-volume Grafton paperback collection of them.
Let’s begin with a brief quiz. Have you ever arrived home, triumphant with glee over your latest bookshop find, only to discover that you already have the book you just purchased? Have you ever attempted to bring home unobserved a stack of newly purchased books, and thus avoid the censorious lift of the eyebrows of loved ones which so often greets your latest acquisitions? Have you ever begun reading a book you’ve been looking forward to for years, even decades, only to discover your own notes in the margins? (If so, you are a bibliolathas.) Are you on first-name terms with the staff of three bookshops or more? Have you ever had to reinforce a sagging floor because of the weight of your books? Have you ever had to add a room on to your home or move to a larger one to accommodate them?
One wouldn’t normally associate a book on pipes and pipe-smoking with deceit, guilt and posterior discomfort. This is how it happened. It was 1964. I was a scholastically challenged 14-year-old from north London who had just undergone double maths. Still dazed, I’d wandered off to the back of the bike sheds where I came across Howard Payne and his cronies furtively dispatching a packet of Gauloises.
Ink has been spilt debating when genre novels become literary fiction. My rule of thumb for recognizing the best in any genre is this: notice what books you keep, won’t lend and need to reread every few years. In detective fiction, for me, this means the books of Ross Macdonald, whose PI hero, Lew Archer, investigated murder and excess in post-war California.
I always take particular pleasure in people’s stories about how they discover books. For me, the process is quite conventional, more often than not the result of a trip to the London Library, through word of mouth, via Slightly Foxed, or a profitable hour or two spent in a favourite second-hand bookshop. There is one exception in my experience, though: a discovery made thanks to a devastating fire at a country house.
Not long ago, in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, I was transfixed by a vast oil painting; Viktor Vasnetsov’s Bogatyrs (Men of Power) – astride their horses, one brown, one black, one white. I felt a thrill of recognition. Here were the three brothers, born to a poor widow in a single night and named Evening, Midnight and Sunrise, ‘all three as strong as any of the strong men and mighty bogatyrs who have shaken this land of Russia with their tread’.
Recently I decided to reread George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–2). Half a lifetime had passed since my first reading. I remembered how satisfying I had found the book then; now I wondered how I would find it thirty-five years later. Rereading a favourite book can be perilous. Whatever the poet says, one can never quite recapture that ‘first fine, careless rapture’. And of course I am not the same person today as I was then.
I write these words, appropriately enough, in The Woolpack – the Slad pub that once claimed Laurie Lee as its most famous patron – with a pint of cider at my elbow. From one window, the view dips down into a valley, and you can see a path that leads into Stroud, where Lee was born in 1914. From the other, the churchyard, where he is buried beneath the words ‘He lies in the valley he loved’, is just visible. The cider I am drinking is, inevitably, pressed from local apples: ‘golden fire, wine of wild orchids and of that valley and that time and of Rosie’s burning cheeks’. It feels, as it often does in The Woolpack, as if the connections with the past, those generations before me who called this place home, are tangible ones, worn into the dark, musty, cider-soaked fabric of the place.
Imagine you are walking in the English countryside and come to a village. As the day is hot and the church is open, you step inside to look around and rest in the predictably cool and dim interior. There are some things that the vast majority of church buildings in the British Isles seem to share: the ‘odour of sanctity’ (a combination of furniture polish, lilies and slightly damp stonework); the kneelers stitched by parishioners; a wall display or prayer tree made by the Sunday-school children; and a series of polite little notices – ‘Please close the door. PIGEONS!!!’
Dr Felicity James, author of Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s and current custodian of Charles’s writing chair, introduces the Slightly Foxed editors to siblings at the heart of a literary circle. In their Tales from Shakespeare, gentle-hearted drunken-dog Charles wrote the tragedies and Mary, often chided for laughing, the comedies, and together they penned letters using different coloured inks. From a murder in the home and time in private asylums to conversations with Coleridge at the pub, dissertations on roast pig and salons in their London lodgings, we explore the lives of the Lambs and their friendships through books.
Greetings from Hoxton Square where once again we’re sharing a free article from Slightly Foxed to complement a weekend of good reading. The magazine’s archive now stretches to almost 17 years’ worth of issues and over 1000 articles, all of which are available in print and on our website. This week we have combed through our back issues to bring you a piece by John le Carré’s biographer Adam Sisman on a spy fiction classic, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
There’s a fox’s earth on the cover of this issue, but thanks in large part to you, this Fox has far from gone to earth. We’ve loved receiving your encouraging messages and emails during this difficult year, and you’ve pulled out all the stops with extra purchases, subscriptions and renewals. ‘I read Slightly Foxed in bed with my morning tea as an antidote to the news,’ writes N. Reifler. Now it’s autumn, and we’re happy to say that our publishing programme is up and running, with a great deal to look forward to.
‘Variety, the unexpected, a bit of vulgarity and the ridiculous mixed in with the elevated,’ has been Roger Hudson’s recipe in compiling this commonplace book from material he’s gathered over the past 40 years. And that is what we are given in this wide-ranging collection by a well-read man with a sharp eye, an ironic – indeed very English – sense of humour and a devotion to history.
Last Thursday was a red-letter day for me because it was that now rare thing, a real letter day. Among the catalogues, bills and offers to sell the house shoved through the letterbox was an envelope addressed in the distinctive handwriting of an old friend. For many years now, widowed and against all advice, she has lived alone in a slightly dilapidated house in a remote part of rural France, reading and rereading her favourite books, ruled over with an ‘iron paw’ by her dog and cat and subsisting on very little money. She sees a few local friends, but nowadays, she says, she tends more to reclusiveness, quoting Colin Dexter’s verdict on Inspector Morse: ‘He was somewhat of a loner by temperament – because though never wholly happy when he was alone he was usually slightly more miserable when with other people.’
Greetings from Hoxton Square where, following the dispatch of our autumn publications to readers around the world, our thoughts are beginning to turn to woolens, fireside nooks and making our way through the toppling piles of books we’ve selected from a bumper crop of recent titles. One of these books is James Rebanks’s new offering, English Pastoral, a history of the Lake District farm he inherited and how the land has changed over three generations. Reading of farm life in the northern fells prompted us to revisit Ursula Buchan’s article from Slightly Foxed Issue 53, which takes us back to James Rebanks’s first book, The Shepherd’s Life, and to W. H. Hudson’s A Shepherd’s Life, the book which ‘turned the young Rebanks into a reader’.
The food writer and chef Olivia Potts joins the Slightly Foxed editors for a literary banquet. Olivia was a barrister for five years before enrolling at Le Cordon Bleu, becoming a cookery columnist on The Spectator and writing A Half Baked Idea, a memoir with recipes. From finding consolation in cooking and precision in pâtisserie to nostalgia-soaked blancmange and family dinners in the Cazalet Chronicles, the conversation flows, welcoming Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Charles Dickens and the extraordinary Fanny Cradock to the table along the way. And in this month’s taste from the magazine’s archives, Rachel Khoo’s cookbook conjures up feasts in an attic in Paris.
Oxford is home to a host of literary greats, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lewis Carroll, Iris Murdoch and Philip Pullman to name a few. And, as of last month, it is home to a brand-new branch of Daunt Books, who bring their signature independent spirit, smart aesthetic and bookselling expertise to Oxford-based bibliophiles.
Introducing the newest addition to the Slightly Foxed bookshelves: SF Edition No. 52, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels. ‘It was becoming rather apparent by this year of 1935 that not all of us were turning out quite according to plan,’ writes Jessica Mitford in this brilliantly funny and perceptive account of growing up as the fifth of the six notoriously headstrong Mitford sisters. And it was perhaps Jessica – always known as Decca – the lifelong hard-line socialist, who turned out least ‘according to plan’ of them all.
We’re delighted to report that the Autumn issue of Slightly Foxed (No. 67) has left the printing press at Smith Settle. With it, as usual, you’ll find a copy of our latest Readers’ Catalogue, detailing new editions, our backlist, books featured in the latest issue of the quarterly, a selection of literary goods and other offers and bundles. We do hope you’ll enjoy the new issue of the quarterly, wherever in the world you are.
Tor Falcon is an artist who walks and makes drawings on her journeys through the landscape. Past projects include the Peddars Way and the South Downs. Her most recent project, to follow, draw and write about the rivers of Norfolk, took four years to complete.
A disused bus shelter in the market town of Sedbergh is a curious place for a quest to end, literary or otherwise. The town itself is rather curious too; geographically in Cumbria but on the wrong side of the M6 to be in the Lake District proper, it sits almost exactly on the watershed where the rolling green fells give way to the harsher limestone uplands of the Yorkshire Dales. Hard up against the Howgill Fells, it has always attracted walkers but in recent years it has also become a haven for readers. It now has seven bookshops, including an enormous second-hand one at the end of the High Street, and bookshelves are squeezed into any available space in the town’s other shops and cafés. When we arrived for cake and a potter while holidaying in Hawes, it was more in hope than expectation that here we would find the missing piece to complete the Scandinavian puzzle that our dining-room bookshelf had become.
Recently, lingering in my loft over books and back numbers of this journal and that, I stumbled on a photo of some schoolboys, paper and pencils in hand, sitting on a fence and watching a train go by. The location was Tring; the date, 1933. It’s a safe bet that what those lads were jotting down was the number of the steam locomotive at the head of the express.
A couple of years ago the judges for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction decided that none of the sixty two books submitted was funny enough to win, so they withheld the award. One of them, the publisher David Campbell, explained: ‘Despite the submitted books producing many a wry smile amongst the panel during the judging process, we did not feel than any of the books we read this year incited the level of unanimous laughter we have come to expect.’ Humour is notoriously subjective, but I am confident that if the prize had existed sixty-seven years ago, Gwyn Thomas’s A Frost on My Frolic would have been a strong contender.
Is it possible to love a book and hate it at the same time? That is the question that nags me whenever I think of Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami (1885). It’s undoubtedly a masterpiece: the characterization is subtle, the social critique is incisive, the plot is completely absorbing. But its protagonist, nicknamed Bel-Ami because of his extraordinary good looks, is one of literature’s most despicable creations: a man who tramples on friend and foe alike – and above all on the women who love him – in his pursuit of wealth and status. With another writer, you might stomach such behaviour in the sure expectation of a spectacular come-uppance; but Maupassant’s amoral universe is one in which some people can get away with anything. What keeps us turning the pages is the brilliance of his writing and a fascination with how far his anti-hero can go.
‘Dance after dance with an old fogey. Three running now, pressed to his paunch.’ Oh, the hell of parties! The small humiliations. The shy, smudged-mascara, wallflower-grief of it all. Where was Rollo? Archie? Tony? Even Reggie, dreaded Reggie, would do. In Rosamond Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz we share every agony, every spurning, every smallest saving grace with Olivia Curtis, just 17 and, as her dressmaker cheerfully tells her, ‘no bewtee’. We meet her on her birthday, staring into the bedroom mirror with a mix of adolescent pride and doubt. And such is Lehmann’s uncanny power that the reflection in the glass isn’t Olivia’s: it’s our own.
‘My father once told me that our history is like a force behind us, pushing us along, unacknowledged or even unknown, but dictating the way we live our lives.’ In the Memory of the Forest by Charles T. Powers is set in a small Polish town fifty miles east of Warsaw in the early 1990s. Communism is being dismantled. Free-market capitalism lets rip.
Sometime in the late 1990s, when I was staying in Dublin with my sister Marie Heaney and her husband Seamus, he was working on the introduction to a book called A Way of Life, Like Any Other, which I took to be a novel. I’d never heard of it, but the fact that Seamus was writing an introduction to this new edition seemed like an honour and signalled importance. First published in 1977, it had won both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the American PEN/Hemingway Award. How had I missed it?
In keeping with its name, Pimpernel Press has put down its roots in an unassuming Victorian house hidden at the end of a pleasant street off West London’s Harrow Road. The only hint that a publisher is in residence is the pile of tempting-looking books glimpsed from the front doorstep through the ground-floor bay window. Pimpernel’s publisher, Jo Christian, squeezes past me in the narrow hall to usher me into her combined office and living-room, where a long table is covered with a comfortable clutter of laptop, proofs, interesting objects and framed photographs. Beneath a wall thick with prints and paintings a pair of life-sized Coade stone greyhounds – refugees perhaps from some great house or garden – stand next to a large old sofa covered in piles of books. We’re clearly a long way here from the world of corporate publishing.
In many ways The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a maddening book. It is funny, of course, but also eccentric, anarchic and longwinded; and it’s hard to understand why it survived to become a classic. Perhaps these days only university students and professors read Tristram Shandy. But for two centuries it was a family favourite. My great-grandfather Walter Congreve discovered it while lying wounded in hospital during the Boer War. He carried it with him – alongside the Bible – through the First World War, to his military command in Palestine and thence to Malta as governor.
Every child who enjoys reading will sooner or later begin to explore the world of grown-up books. The first ones I ever read were bought in an antique shop in the picturesque town of Cromarty on the Black Isle. I can’t recall my exact age or the year – about thirteen, around 1975 – but the second-hand paperbacks I found there and devoured over that three-week family holiday are very clear in my mind.
Desperation drove me to Horatius, one gloomy afternoon in late October. Thirty restless children were waiting to be entertained, educated or even just dissuaded from rioting by their hapless supply teacher. I gave them Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome – largely because my father’s recitation of ‘How Horatius Kept the Bridge’ had so grabbed and held my own attention, decades earlier. The drama of the thing still worked its magic: the bridge fell with a crash like thunder, whereupon ‘a long shout of triumph rose from the walls of Rome / As to the highest turret-tops was splashed the yellow foam’. My father would put gleeful stress on the word ‘yellow’. Then, of course, brave Horatius, fully armed and uttering a powerful prayer to Father Tiber, hurls himself into the turbulent river and makes it to the other shore.
Sometimes, nostalgic for Paris, I read books about the city in the hope that through them I’ll know again the felt reality of daily life there. It never really works: books, after all, can only do so much. A rare few, though, come surprisingly close. Among them Paris, by Julian Green, first published in French in 1983, is the one I return to most often. It is also, for some reason, one of the least known.
At school I loved our history lessons. I spent hours drawing plans of castles and battles, and was a binge reader of historical fiction by anyone from Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece to Mary Renault and Robert Graves. A little later I enjoyed exploring first-hand evidence from the past and I particularly remember some volumes in the school library called They Saw It Happen. The third of these English historical anthologies, covering the years 1689–1897, was especially well-known to us because it had been compiled by bufferish Mr Charles-Edwards and suede-shoed Mr Richardson from our very own History Department.
A lone doctor hares down a country lane in his Land Rover, his thumb jammed on the horn to warn the oncoming traffic that he’s not stopping. A woodman’s been pinned to the ground on a remote hillside by a falling tree and every second counts. Even at the start of A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (1967), we are given an inkling of what makes Dr Sassall an exceptional GP. He had his thumb on the horn partly, he explains, so that the man under the tree might hear it and know he is on his way. Dr Sassall understands that even when the immediate danger is physical, his patients need him to keep their minds in mind. A good doctor treats the whole of his patient, not just his wounds.
I’ve just read Party Going (1939), Henry Green’s comic and melancholic masterpiece, for the third or fourth time, and I’m still not sure how to convey its complex flavour. It’s a fantastically busy and exuberant novel, in which nothing really happens. (The major events include: an old lady picking up a dead pigeon and subsequently feeling ill; a beautiful young woman having a bath; a servant getting a kiss from a stranger.) It’s at once so beautifully written that I want to quote the whole thing, and so eccentrically stylized that it isn’t easy to find a quotable line. (Green was intolerant of standard English grammar and syntax; witness for example his take-’em-or-leave-’em approach to articles, as in the novel’s bizarre opening sentence: ‘Fog was so dense, bird that had been disturbed went flat into a balustrade and slowly fell, dead, at her feet.’) It’s an effervescent comedy of manners, set almost exclusively among members of the English upper class – and yet its most remarkable quality is an anguished sense of human suffering.
In the early 1980s I began working on my first book, a biography of Nancy Mitford. Four of the six Mitford sisters were then still living, Pamela in the Cotswolds, Diana in Paris with her second husband Sir Oswald Mosley, Debo, wife of the Duke of Devonshire, at Chatsworth, and Jessica, always known as ‘Decca’, with her family in California. Throughout my research Pam, Diana and Debo were immensely kind and helpful, all of them possessed of great charm and a slightly idiosyncratic sense of humour. They invited me to stay, gave me access to hundreds of letters, and mined for my benefit lucid memories of their early lives and of their family and friends.
When I think back to that first visit of mine to Estonia in 1988, I see muted, metallic-grey tones of fog and sea; above all I remember a sense of wonder that I was finally on my way to my mother’s homeland. Ingrid was 17 when, stateless and displaced, she arrived in England in 1947, having fled westwards from the Baltic ahead of Stalin’s advancing Red Army. She had not been back to her native land since. Now, half a century later, I was sailing to the Estonian capital of Tallinn from Helsinki – a three-hour journey by ferry across the Gulf of Finland. The Independent Magazine had asked me to report on Moscow’s waning power in the Soviet Baltic. A hammer and sickle flapped red from the ship’s stern as we set sail. The air was pungent with engine oil as I walked towards the stern and watched Helsinki’s Eastern Orthodox cathedral dwindle to a dot.
It’s true that I’m writing this in Highbury, but mentally I’m in Suffolk. We came back yesterday from a week’s family holiday, and after months of being confined to London and seeing very little of our grandchildren, I’m finding it hard to make the transition. In my mind’s eye I’m still on the harbourside at Walberswick grasping the back of my 7-year-old grandson’s T-shirt as he crouches above the water, his small body tense with excitement as he strains over the edge to see if there’s anything in the net he’s dangling into the murky depths below. ‘Shall I pull it up now?’ ‘Well, wait a little bit, you’ve only just looked.’ ‘But there’s something in it. I know there is. I can see it!’ We peer down. Something seems to be moving, and yes! Oh joy! ‘Granny, it’s a crab! It’s huge. It’s gigantic. Quick, come and look!’
Small but discerning, choosing passion over fashion, Little Toller Books shares an independent spirit with Slightly Foxed. Jon Woolcott joins us from this publishing house based in a converted old dairy in Dorset, and charts the rise from cottage industry origins to a wide, prized backlist. With roots in rural writing, Little Toller has branched out to seek unusual voices, resurrecting the life of the wood engraver Clifford Webb, turning landfill into prose, uncovering Edward Thomas’s hidden photographs and finding a bestseller in the diary of a young naturalist along the way. We turn to the magazine’s archives for John Seymour’s advice on cheddaring, sparging and gaffing, and there’s the usual round-up of recommended reading from off the beaten track.
‘“It was Uncle who was your father,” she said.’
So begins SF Edition No. 33: The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley, Diana Petre’s utterly unselfpitying and often very funny account of what must be one of the oddest childhoods on record. Diana and her twin sisters were abandoned in 1912 by their mother, the enigmatic Mrs Muriel Perry, whose real name and true identity were a mystery. After an absence of ten years, Muriel reappeared and took charge of her children, with disastrous results. For the girls, one of the highlights of their isolated lives were visits from a kindly man they knew as ‘Uncle Bodger’. In fact, as Muriel finally revealed, he was their father, Roger Ackerley.
On Sunday afternoon we set out for a walk in what is to me one of the strangest green spaces in this part of London, Abney Park Cemetery. Hidden behind the chic little boutiques and coffee shops of Stoke Newington Church Street, its 30-acre site originally formed part of the grounds of Fleetwood House and Abney House, both built in the 1600s and now demolished, one of which was lived in from 1734 until his death in 1748 by the preacher and hymn writer Isaac Watts.