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News from Slightly Foxed: Light Reading
Well, happy New Year to you all, dear readers! We hope you had a most enjoyable Christmas season, filled with good company, good food and plenty of reading time. Our tenth anniversary year really was a happy and fruitful one and we’re looking forward to seeing what’s in store for the coming year. Thank you to all those who placed orders for books and foxy goods or renewed subscriptions online over Christmas and New Year. It was most heartening to return to a postbox brimming not just with orders, but also with the sort of festive cards and cheery greetings that we’re always so touched and delighted to receive from readers.

We don’t know about you but even we perennially cheerful SFers are in need of a little extra help in January, so this month’s newsletter bears one of our favourite spring artworks: the British illustrator Simon Dorrell’s ‘Foxgloves’ from Issue 14. The little fox peering out through the digitalis reminds us that spring will soon come again and with it the longer days and warmer nights, as well as the new spring issue of the quarterly and our first books of the year.

Meantime we thought we’d start the year with an article from our increasingly rich archive of back issues. In the following extract from SF 17, the novelist, essayist and historian Ronald Blythe who, like us, delights in the physical nature of books, their paper, their odour . . . ’ describes the pleasure he gained from inheriting a friend’s library of pocket editions.
 
When my old friend the artist John Nash died I inherited his books. I imagined him reading them by lamplight, just as I read when I was a boy, the twin wicks faintly waving inside the Swan glass chimney. There they all were, those handsome runs of pocket-size volumes which preceded the 1930s Penguins and the subsequent paperbacks. Some were small-pack books and had gone to the Western Front. Some were hiking books and had gone up mountains. Some were still a bit painty, having gone on landscape expeditions. All showed signs of having had a life far from that in the studio bookcase. All spoke of belonging to a man who, when young, had been a convert to the Open Road.
   The creed of the Open Road had been written by George Borrow:
   
There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die? (Lavengro, Chapter 25)

Jack Kerouac would say something similar. As Passchendaele approached, John Nash returned his beloved Everyman edition of Borrow to his sweetheart, along with the letters she had sent him, believing that he would not see her or them again.
   So here they were, the very same volumes he’d carried with him. I read in their curly endpapers the great promise which good books make. ‘Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.’ When last read, their owner thought that he would never see his native Buckinghamshire again, either. But a gypsy boy who had been called up from the same county comforted him. They would both find life sweet once more in the Chilterns.
   When I knew John Nash in his middle age he walked nowhere,but the wind from the heath would whip into his little car and blow the cigarette smoke about, and the easel would rattle in the boot, and life was indeed very sweet. Green-back Penguins breathing murder slid about under the seat. Now in what had been his studio I began to put his Everymans in order.
   In 1904 Joseph Dent and his son Hugh decided on nothing less than publishing a library of one thousand of the best authors at a price the ordinary reader could afford – a shilling a volume. They got the writer Ernest Rhys to advise them and it was he who christened the project the Everyman Library. The format was a sturdy cloth with gold on the spines. Compared with today’s paperbacks they were quite hefty, with sharp corners. You would know that you were carrying a book in your pocket. They had marvellous introductions by scholars like Holbrook Jackson, May Sinclair and Eugene Mason, and the keen Everyman-ist would soon, without knowing it, become well acquainted with Eng. Lit.
   Joseph Dent was born in Darlington in 1849, the son of a housepainter. From childhood on he adored not only the contents of a book but also its binding. Now, during the few years before the First World War, he was able to present English Literature itself from his model factory in Letchworth Garden City to the book-hungry public. The 1870 Education Act had by the early twentieth century created an insatiable readership, though mostly of people whose wages did not run to six or more shillings a volume. The public and commercial libraries thrived but there arose a longing to possess books, especially the great authors, and to fill one’s own bookcase became an urgent pleasure. Working men and women no longer wanted a small pile of miscellaneous reading but a library which looked like a library. In his youth John Nash was an insatiable reader and at first had aspirations to become a writer rather than an artist.
   His brother Paul, too, was well-read. Partly because of this, the two of them would be in the van of a wonderful era of book illustration as they set wood-engravings to text during the 1930s. Now and then a bus ticket or a pressed flower or a shopping list floats from John’s books. How diligently they have kept his place all these years. I am pulling from the dusty shelf his Everymans, many volumes of them, their golden spines still fairly bright. And next Dent’s ambitious run of Aldine classics which preceded his Everyman Library. These were nothing less than pocket luxuries which imitated the books that Aldus Manutius published in exquisite small octavo editions during the Renaissance. Dent actually named his premises in Bedford Street Aldine House, throwing out a challenge to London publishers. The army of new readers would be given beautiful-to-handle books. One of my first buys from a second-hand ledge when I was a teenager was the Aldine edition of Le Morte D’Arthur. Faintly worn, in soft green leather, the four volumes had the famous Aldine owl stamped on them and Aubrey Beardsley’s sensational illustrations inside – many of them, and each protected by a filmy tissue. The previous buyer had written inside, ‘Gerald Gurney from his beloved wife, February 1899’. What a Valentine. I found several more de luxe Aldine books amongst John’s youthful collection, two passed on to him by Paul: Thomas Dekker’s The Guls Hornebooke and The Belman of London, each containing disgraceful advice.
   From the creation of the Everyman Library onwards publishers began to notice a populace which, as well as being book-devouring, was using what spare time it had to leave work and home for the countryside. Hiking, cycling, climbing and eventually motoring, these passionate new freedoms were served by some brilliant writing – and some new runs of pocket volumes. Thus came Routledge’s Railway Library, Dent’s Open Air Library (which included a fine 1932 edition of Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches perfectly illustrated by John Nash’s friend Eric Daglish), Argosy Books’ ‘For the Rucksack’ and county guides printed on India paper, the easier to carry around. Cape’s Travellers’ Library series was ‘designed for the pocket, or for the small house where shelf-space is limited’. Among my own treasures in this edition are four volumes of A. E. Coppard’s short stories and Sarah Orne Jewett’s masterpiece The Country of the Pointed Firs with a preface by her admirer Willa Cather. Nearly all these modestly priced and delightfully produced editions possess introductions which are an hors d’oeuvre literary treat in themselves. The Travellers’ Library was a joint venture into the easily-carried volume by Jonathan Cape and William Heinemann, immediately after the First World War. It was a swift recognition of the freedoms to be found in the countryside. Even the unemployed could and did walk away from it all, if only for a day. Designed so that all the volumes are of uniform thickness, no matter how many pages, with covers made especially durable against ‘hasty packing’, this pocket series, I find, becomes more beautiful with age and use. Just to hold one of these 7x4-inch little books is an enchantment. How have we degenerated from such publishing to the brick-sized fiction of today? To carry a couple of the latter on a fell walk puts one in the company of Pilgrim and his load.
   Chatto & Windus’s Phoenix Library of the Thirties – ‘Pocket size. 3s 6d net per volume’ – is also a run worth having. My first encounter with it was when, aged 18, I saw Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in a Rye bookshop. I had a birthday book-token which ran to two volumes of this previously unheard-of novel. Thus it began, the lifelong loyalty to this white and blue edition with, inside the wrapper, the glorious red and gold spine, and inside the cover the memory river briefly halted here and there by a Philippe Jullian drawing. The Phoenix Library began with Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria and there soon arrived other old friends: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner – ‘an object lesson in the proper way of bringing Satan into modern fiction’, said the TLS – and eventually, volumes three and four of Marcel Proust! The final volume had to be translated by Stephen Hudson aka Sidney Schiff, because its original translator Scott Moncrieff haddied. Hudson was a friend of John Nash and there is a written instruction on the fly-leaf on how he was to read Proust. Since John only possessed this last volume, I doubt if he learned how. And I doubt even more if he ever read Dainty Poems of the XIX Century in Harrap’s Choice Books series. When we die our bookshelves can libel us. 
   Thin paper was the order of the pocket-edition day. In 1911 John Murray produced a thin-paper edition of the works of Stanley J. Weyman, twenty-two volumes in all. Conan Doyle, the Brontës, the Brownings, all came whispering from the press. There was no excuse for not carrying them about. Books were light luggage. They might also be nice to touch, like a lover or a cat. Thus the – now rather unpleasant – feel of suede and velvet-bound copies of the Rubáiyát of Omár Khayyám and Sappho. Their nap clings to my fingers. Their naked girls are tipped in, making fluttering pictures which one would not like the servants to see. What a fuss it all is, this bedside binding. There were a number of these naughty volumes to tremble over. Quite my favourite is The Garden of Kama by Laurence Hope. Heinemann’s Windmill Library. Twenty editions by 1930.

   Were I but one of my serving girls
   To solace his pain to rest!
   Shake out the sand from the soft loose curls,
   And hold him against my breast!
            (‘The Regret of the Ranee in the Hall of Peacocks’)
 
Two things were imperative for these publications: the word ‘Library’ and a spine to be proud of. The latter after all is what one sees on the bookshelf. I confront them discerningly, giving them the due that they deserve. For the years have not dimmed their gold but have actually brought a radiance to their design. Here comes something wonderful, a rare edition of Poems by John Clare edited by Arthur Symons. It is bound in a rich dull green and has a lotus pattern art nouveau spine. This is the selection of Clare’s poetry which Edmund Blunden read as a boy and which he took to the Western Front, and which, when he taught at Oxford, became the seed corn of all future Clare studies. This little book.
   Macmillan’s Golden Treasury series of easily-carried literature began with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury itself in 1861 – ‘a uniformly printed series in 18mo, with Vignette Titles by J. E. Millais, T. Woolner etc.’ It was the sculptor Thomas Woolner who drew the piping Pan on the cover. My particular treasure in this edition is Letters of Cowper, 1884. John Constable died with Cowper’s Letters in his hand. And here comes the copy of Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia in the Golden Treasury format, which Paul Nash gave to his brother in 1929, and which gave Paul his ‘imagery’ and also his philosophy. He has inscribed it elegantly. 
   Lolling here, I could go on for pages. I am like Jean Rhys who, when she was old, forgot time, breakfast, lunch, combing her hair, and would topple out of bed towards the nearest bookcase and – read! The chapters and the hours and the cigarettes would pass. Poring over the little volumes I am glad to have been given them – grateful, happy for them. Dear, dear books, never shall you go to the Oxfam shop.

© Ronald Blythe 2008, 2014
 
Ronald Blythes works include The Age of Illusion, Akenfield, The View in Winter, The Assassin and The Wormingford Trilogy. He delights in the physical nature of books, their paper, their odour, their signs of having travelled, been handled, treasured, possessed.

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Coming up in the spring issue: Victoria Glendinning hunts a biographer • Lawrence Sail hears healing laughter • Sarah Lawson revisits Gone with the WindRohan Candappa discovers a comic genius • Annabel Walker tastes the life of a peregrine • Patrick Welland enters the world of a Roman Emperor • Laura Freeman takes love lessons • John Keay witnesses a Javanese tragedy • Jane Ridley meets Edward VIII • Jeremy Lewis marches with Marlborough • Daisy Hay reads a novel of society, and much more besides . . .

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Period Piece

Gwen Raverat is best known for her glorious wood-engravings, but in her childhood memoir Period Piece she created a perfect small masterpiece of another kind – a deliciously funny, affectionate and atmospheric picture of life in the small world of nineteenth-century academic Cambridge among the eccentric Darwin clan.
 
Illustrated with Gwen’s own delightful drawings, Period Piece, which is probably one of the best-loved books in the English language, not only brilliantly captures a moment in time but also shows us the making of the artist Gwen was to become. As Rose Macaulay wrote when it was first published, it is ‘funny, witty, beautifully written, more than beautifully illustrated, everything such a book can be’.
 

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A Sort of Life

Graham Greene once said that writing this memoir of his early years ‘was in the nature of a psychoanalysis. I made a long journey through time and I was one of my characters.’ Certainly the younger self that emerges is as complex and intriguing as any of those he created in his novels.
 
A Sort of Life takes Greene through Oxford, the early years of marriage and his conversion to Catholicism, to the point where he recklessly gives up his first Fleet Street job as a sub-editor on The Times in order to write full-time. But what marked Greene out above all else was his utter determination to pursue his craft.

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We were intrigued to receive a copy of the above picture in the post late last year, together with a note from a long-standing subscriber who writes: 

‘Thank you for the latest Edition, I am very pleased that you have included Gerry Durrell’s book in your series. I was cameraman on several of Gerry and Lee’s TV documentary series and got to know them well. They were both great company and fun to work with, and I visited them at the zoo in Jersey several times. I’m enclosing a copy of the flyleaf of one of their books, with the appropriate inscription - the grocer’s apostrophe is a bit of a worry, though! Keep up the good work.’
C. O’Dell

We are delighted to announce that as of this month Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road is the official bookseller for The Oldie Literary Lunch events.

Slightly Foxed readers are invited to join our friends at The Oldie magazine for their next Literary Lunch on 10 February. Held monthly at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, the lunches feature three speakers who each address the audience for ten minutes. A delicious three-course lunch with wine accompanies the talks. 


10 February 2015

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Andrew Roberts on Napoleon the Great • Kate Mosse on The Taxidermist's Daughter • Christopher Simon Sykes on Hockney

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We are always touched and delighted by the notes, letters, postcards and emails we receive from you. Here are just some of our recent favourites:

‘I recently received my copy of Christabel Bielenberg’s The Past Is Myself and I must say it is even more lovely a thing than I’d anticipated. Reading it, with its fine paper and its perfect size, slows me down in the very best way. Smith Settle have done a magnificent job in its production, and the choice of Bielenberg’s memoir is really inspired as it requires quiet contemplation and a slow pace to take in the import of the years the author so sensitively describes. You have brought a slice of slowness (a very good thing) into my life in the form of this beautiful edition.’ J. Petterson, Canada

‘What a delight. A package, beautifully presented. Even before opening and reading I am trapped. Thank you very much. Please accept my best wishes.’ T.C.R. Green, Devon

‘Thank you for your efficiency - the order arrived and was left as requested while we were out buying sprouts etc! Have a great Christmas.’ C. Chesney, Kent

‘I’m mad about Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s piece in the new issue. Made me laugh out loud. I was a Malory Towers reader and never discovered Angela Brazil. I may have to seek her out for something light to read over Christmas.’ L. Freeman, London

‘Probably the most rewarding £40 I will spend this year.’ C. Skinner, Devon

‘We love and look forward to receiving Slightly Foxed. I try to ration it but end up swallowing it in one gulp.’ J. Allan, Switzerland

New Year Resolutions by
Nancy Campbell, SF Issue 17
 

Best wishes for a happy 2015
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