Notes from Town and Country
From Anna, Harringay, 30 April 2021
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.
There’s been a surge of orders as bookshops top up their shelves and fill table displays with Slightly Foxed wares. We’ve missed seeing the magazine and our editions out in the wild, ready to be discovered by new readers. Our friends at fellow independent publisher Little Toller opened a brand-new bookshop in Beaminster, Dorset, just days before the last lockdown, so it’s been a particular joy to send parcel after parcel of SF books westwards and see them displayed so beautifully. Beaminster is now high on our list when planning future countrywide bookshop-crawls.
With bookshops opening, our bedside tables are inevitably groaning. As ever, we’ve been sharing new purchases and, curiously, our recent favourites have all had a sense of the uncanny about them. Jess pressed a new translation of Beowulf into my hands, Maria Dahvana Headley’s verse interpretation in which epic heroic feats are described in modern vernacular. I circulated a recent reissue of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns, a deliciously dark and surreal tale about the Willoweed family, set in an English village where strange things are afoot. And Hattie picked up Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, which follows the mysterious case of Gretchen Tilbury and claims of a virgin birth. We’re happy to report that these recommendations are fantastic in all senses.
We won’t have to wait much longer until public museums and galleries are open again but, in the meantime, I discovered a gem of an exhibition at the Tristan Hoare gallery in Fitzroy Square. Kaori Tatebayashi is a Japanese ceramicist, working in hand-formed white stoneware, and The Walled Garden is her first solo exhibition. I booked an appointment, walked into Bloomsbury on a very sunny Saturday, donned my face mask and had the large, light-filled rooms all to myself. One room was sparse, with Kaori’s floral sculptures mounted on the walls and her modelled butterflies positioned on a single sun-lounger, while the other was arranged to replicate her artist’s studio, crowded with dried flowers, clay forms, miscellaneous artefacts and curiosities. I couldn’t help thinking that they would all make beautiful props for our Slightly Foxed catalogue photo spreads . . .
As I left the gallery, fantasizing about how I’d like to live in those rooms, the vast windows letting in so much light and looking out on to the garden in Fitzroy Square, I paused at a blue plaque opposite: ‘Virginia Stephen (Virginia Woolf) lived here from 1907 to 1911’. And just above this, another plaque: ‘George Bernard Shaw lived in this house from 1887 to 1898’. Hallowed halls at No. 29 Fitzroy Square.
If that wasn’t enough culture and excitement for one day, I attended a book launch in the evening. We’re not quite at the white wine, nibbles and mingling phase of bookshop parties and events yet – though this will come in time – so it was an online knees-up, expertly hosted by the independent bookshop Burley Fisher. Kayo Chingonyi, an old friend and excellent poet, has just had his second collection, A Blood Condition, published. Even via a screen, it was a delight to hear him read his own words and, in the spirit of celebration, play music that inspired or accompanied much of his writing. The event was bittersweet; I look forward to raising toasts to new books inside bookshops very soon.
From Gail, Manaton, 30 April 2021
April has been an odd month. There are signs of spring everywhere – carpets of primroses behind the house, the hazels laden with catkins, tiny violets peeping out shyly from the woodland edge, the hawthorn beginning to green and the blackthorn a cloud of white blossom. But still it feels as if everything is holding its breath. It’s not rained up here on Dartmoor for at least a month and the temperature has struggled to get into double figures. Most mornings we’ve had a heavy frost and the thermometer has hovered around 3 or 4 degrees. All this has created a lot of gardening angst. Is it too soon to plant out peas and broad beans? My tomato plants, on a windowsill in the kitchen, are almost too tall to carry and badly need to go into the greenhouse but it’s not heated – will they survive these very cold nights? And is there really any point in sowing lettuce seed in such cold ground?
Well, it may not be a good time to plant and sow in the garden, but this weather has been perfect for a long walk and a chance to escape my desk and piles of proofs. Winter walking on Dartmoor generally involves an awful lot of waterproofing, and in summer the air amongst the bracken is humid and full of flies. Now though, in early spring, the skies are clear and the bracken dormant. So off we went last weekend with a couple of friends and a rucksack picnic to explore a new route on the southern moor that would take us in a wide loop, following small paths from one tor to the next.
Dartmoor has over 160 of these tors ‒ rocky granite outcrops, many rather dramatic in shape and the subject of legends. We met at the carpark by Cold East Cross and set off due north, for Rippon Tor, a steady trudge up three or four hundred feet. At the top, pausing to catch our breath, we could see the sea far over to the east, while westwards the High Moor stretched to the horizon. Then, dropping down the far side of the tor, we followed sheep paths to a low granite wall. A quick and rather undignified scramble over it and on up towards Saddle Tor. Our map told us we were passing Bronze Age tumuli and hut circles but for me the pleasure was in being out in the open with skylarks singing and hardly another person in sight.
From Saddle Tor we picked our way past the shoulder of Haytor which rears its head out the surrounding land like some ancient beast awakening. It’s the most distinctive of all Dartmoor’s tors and for that reason (and because it is close to a road) it attracts a lot of visitors. Best really to admire it from a distance, so we headed for Holwell Tor instead and a brief stop for coffee from a thermos. The next puzzle was to find our way down the steep western side of the tor. There was the usual debate about the best route, and I’m not sure we took it, but one way or another, after a couple of dead ends, we managed to pick our way through the clutter of rocks and reach the bottom of the valley.
Here the Becka Brook makes its way north through overhanging willow and birch and stunted oaks, its peat-laden water a beautiful aqueous amber. Another stop so Chudleigh and Stanley could have a swim, and then up through blackthorn and birch and hazel to Holwell Down. In May this will be a carpet of bluebells but for now only the first leaves are poking their way through the turf. As we ambled up a gradual incline more tors came into view – Chinkwell and Honeybags and the tor we’d chosen for lunch, Bonehill Rocks. On its southern side, in the sunshine but out of the wind and with just the right flat rocks to sit on, we found a perfect picnic site. We’d not seen the friends we were with for months so, as we passed round rolls, egg mayonnaise, ham and a pot of mustard, it was lovely to catch up on news. All was well with the world, and I was just splitting open a second roll and not really paying attention when Chudleigh, opportunist that he is, snatched it out of my hand and wolfed it down. Never mind, there were still apples and a bar of chocolate in the rucksack.
To the south of us lay the next tors on our route – Top Tor and Pil Tor, connected by paths along a gentle incline. Here and there amidst the gorse and the stunted hawthorn trees sheep were grazing, some of them with newborn lambs, and in a field in the distance Dartmoor ponies were kicking up their heels.
From Pil Tor, we began to go downhill again, skirting the rushes of Blackslade Mire, to a ford that crosses Ruddycleave Water, and a farm track that took us steadily up and back to our starting point. We’d covered about seven miles, and six tors – all in all a lovely day, we agreed, as we drove home feeling a little footsore but very content.
It’s over a year since we started our diary, just as the first lockdown began last March. Now, though, things are gradually opening up and soon, we hope, it will be possible to stay with family and friends, and for us all to be able to get together in the office at last. So this will be our last diary entry. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading the diary. We’ve certainly loved writing it, not least because it feels as if it’s brought us closer to all our subscribers, scattered as you are in over sixty countries. For now though, we must press on with future issues of Slightly Foxed, more books to publish and podcasts to record. Thank you all for your continued support and encouragement in difficult times – we do so appreciate it.