Our bookshop is truly up and running now under its new banner ‘Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road’. Renovations have been modest – fresh paint, new carpet, some moveable shelving to allow us to create space for launch parties and events and, as a finishing touch, a traditional pub-style hanging sign featuring the fox. Frankly, we’re so thrilled with it it’s hard for us to keep away, and we do hope that any of you visiting London will drop in there too, to have a browse and meet Tony and the rest of the staff. You’ll find a bookshop leaflet with more details in this issue.
You’ll also find a leaflet for the London Library, that great institution whose early members included Dickens and George Eliot, which has been in its present premises in St James’s Square, off Piccadilly, since 1845. Calm, comfortable – luxurious even (on its website John Julius Norwich writes of ‘the instant oblivion afforded by the armchairs’) – and outstandingly well-stocked, the London Library is by no means the only independent subscription library still surviving today. Among a number of others, the Leeds Library, the Portico Library in Manchester, the Bromley House Library in Nottingham, all founded in the eighteenth or nineteenth century and housed in listed buildings, still suggest that pleasant sense of quiet gravitas that was once normal in a public library.
Visiting a public library may be rather a different experience today, but it can still be life-changing – the driving thought behind Alan Bennett’s delicious tongue-in-cheek novella The Uncommon Reader, in which the Queen’s life is transformed by the chance discovery of a mobile library parked in one of the service areas at Buckingham Palace. It came to mind recently when we stopped in the forecourt of a country pub to find ourselves next to a mobile library, in which the staff were tranquilly eating their lunchtime sandwiches before setting off again to bring good reads to the surrounding villages. The sight was somehow both touching and reassuring.
And speaking of good reads, we heartily recommend the latest of the Slightly Foxed Editions, A House in Flanders (see p. 12), Michael Jenkins’s account of the magical boyhood summer of 1951 which he was sent to spend with ‘the aunts in Flanders’, a family he had never met but whose connection to his own gradually becomes obvious. It was a time when memories of the German occupation were still raw and painful. Into his portraits of the various family members – most notably the matriarch Tante Yvonne – Michael Jenkins skilfully weaves the history and atmosphere of the Flemish countryside and of the daily life of the family he came to love and who gave confidence to a hesitant and solitary English boy. It’s a perfect summer read which, says the author, reappeared to him when he came to write it half a century later ‘as in a dream, complete but surreal’.