Independent to the core: the story of Slightly Foxed, by Hazel Wood
The idea for Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly took shape round a north London kitchen table in the spring and summer of 2003. Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood had been friends and colleagues in the editorial department at the publisher John Murray, and when that dignified old family firm was sold and moved to a twenty-storey office block in Euston Road, they decided the time had come to branch out and do something different, together with Steph Allen, John Murray’s Publicity Director.
All of them were struck by the fact that, while publishing firms were growing larger and larger, the number of interesting and original books being published seemed to be getting smaller and smaller. And they thought of all the thousands of wonderful books that had been allowed to drop out of print, or were languishing, unpublicized on publishers’ backlists, and what a pity it was that people who might enjoy some of these books might never come to hear of them.
So that was how the idea for a magazine featuring forgotten books was born. They decided it wouldn’t be a literary magazine in the usual sense, but a magazine of enthusiasms, with a very personal tone – a companionable quarterly that was both a good read and a pleasure to look at. ‘Good luck,’ people said kindly. Or worse, ‘We think you’re very brave.’
However, contrary perhaps to expectations, Slightly Foxed is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, and, although still small and friendly, it’s a considerably bigger outfit than it was at the beginning. It soon became noticeable that a good few of the books its contributors chose to recommend were memoirs – a genre that both Editors particularly enjoy – and it seemed a natural progression to try to bring some of these forgotten voices back into print. So in 2008 Slightly Foxed Editions, a handsome series of pocket-sized limited edition hardbacks was launched, beginning with Blue Remembered Hills, Rosemary Sutcliff’s poetic and totally unselfpitying account of growing up with a disability and finding her vocation as a writer of children’s books.
Since then another two dozen have been added to the list, all in the same attractive small format and produced to the same elegant standard as Slightly Foxed itself. Some of the authors are well-known – Graham Greene, V.S. Pritchett, Dodie Smith, Edward Ardizzone – some less so, such as Priscilla Napier with her wonderful evocation of growing up in Egypt under the British Mandate A Late Beginner, or Diana Holman-Hunt, whose darkly comic account of her childhood My Grandmothers and I was an early discovery. Some of the titles, like Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s irresistibly funny Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, are distinctly quirky.
What all of them have in common is originality and good writing – not always so easy to find. Ideas for these reissues arrive in various serendipitous ways – from library shelves, second-hand bookshops, friends’ recommendations, suggestions from contributors – and Gail and Hazel spend a lot of time reading, and often rejecting, books that may look promising at the start. It’s a common and rather painful experience to find a book that gripped twenty years ago no longer really does. Or that a book someone else loves simply doesn’t appeal or is too dated. The series deals not in full-scale biographies and autobiographies, but memoirs – a part or aspect of a writer’s life set in a distinct frame. Ultimately what makes a good SF Edition is hard to define, apart from saying that it needs to be a work of art, but it’s something about which Gail and Hazel rarely disagree. As the limited edition hardback titles sell out, the most popular are now available as Slightly Foxed Paperbacks, an attractive little series which was launched in 2011.
In the autumn of 2013 Slightly Foxed launched a children’s series, Slightly Foxed Cubs, beginning with twelve novels by the historian and schoolmaster Ronald Welch. Written between 1954 and 1972, they’re brilliantly detailed fast-paced reads which follow the fortunes of the same family from the Crusades to the First World War and join up the dots of English history in a remarkably vivid and human way. Four are available already and the remainder will be published between now and autumn 2016.
In September 2009, Slightly Foxed branched out into bookselling when it took over the second-hand Gloucester Road Book Shop in South Kensington, which was refurbished and rechristened Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road. It now stocks a carefully chosen selection of old and new books, provides a showcase for Slightly Foxed and its publications, and has become a popular venue for literary events.
Slightly Foxed itself now operates from a small office in Hoxton Square, and employs five full-time and four part-time staff – a long way from the original group around the kitchen table. But it still keeps its personal tone and, for a small firm, has come to occupy an unusually large place in the hearts of its 8,000 readers, who write in from all over the world. ‘Dear SF’, begins a typical letter, ‘you’re a wonderful institution – what the world is supposed to be, but is usually not . . .’
For more information on subscriptions to the quarterly and books published by Slightly Foxed go to www.foxedquarterly.com.
Simon reviews the latest Slightly Foxed Edition John Hackett’s I Was A Stranger here.