Caught by the River

The Fantastic Slightly Foxed

Andy Childs | 27th July 2010

by Andy Childs.

With the publishing industry seemingly in music biz-style turmoil over the dreaded impact of digital technology and the circulations of newspapers and magazines apparently in freefall it may come as a pleasant surprise to learn that there is at least one periodical that is not only surviving in these uncertain times but positively flourishing.

Slightly Foxed is a quarterly literary publication – the self-styled ‘Real Readers Quarterly’ and in June published its twenty sixth issue. It’s predominantly subscription-based with in excess now of 6,000 subscribers and it has become a much-valued focal point for a literary world that most people had assumed had vanished forever – one that eschews most modern publishing trends, pretty much rejects the persuasions of profit-led publicity and marketing strategies for sub-standard books and instead concentrates on the traditional core values of enduring literary talent and exceptional writing. It’s format is beguilingly simple – every issue contains between fifteen and eighteen essays by a variety of writers expounding the virtues of books that have meant much to them, have brought them great pleasure and comfort, and that have for one reason or another been forgotten or under-valued. This of course would be a recipe for endless self-indulgent nostalgia if it wasn’t for the consistently superlative quality of the writing – passionate and erudite without ever being stuffy, preachy or pretentious – and the choice of contributors who all seem to live for, on and with books and are the sort of people you’d have in your dream book-club. Never less than engaging, their contributions can also be surprisingly moving – I defy anyone not to be stopped in their tracks at the end of Laurence Scott’s eloquent childhood memoir underpinned by his fascination with The Observer’s Book Of Automobiles in issue 25. The test for me is if I start to read an essay by someone I’ve never heard of, writing about a book I never knew existed and then at the end feel that my life would not be complete unless I read said book, preferably immediately. And that’s happened to me regularly over the last six years. The magazine’s other great strength is its tactile quality. It looks and feels good. Its lay-out is stylish, the presentation is clear and uncluttered, its size (21cm x 14.5cm) is perfect for the crowded train journey, reading in bed, or the cramped fisherman’s tent, and it’s printed on high-quality cream-coloured vellum paper. And so everything about it exudes a degree of excellence that is uncommon in specialist periodical publishing today.

The idea for Slightly Foxed was first conceived by Gail Pirkis, ex-managing editor at distinguished independent publishing house John Murray until it was taken over by one of the large, faceless publishing companies and disillusionment with the corporate life took hold. She recruited fellow John Murray refugee editor Hazel Wood and between them they put together the first issue which appeared in the spring of 2004. Remarkably it has stayed true to its original aims – to bring attention to neglected or forgotten books that deserve re-appraisal rather than add to the clamour of column inches hogged by over-hyped new books from big publishers – and has appeared regularly, every quarter, ever since.

But not only has the magazine prospered, it has tapped into a culture that has allowed it to expand and develop into other related areas. The first development occurred two years ago with the publication of the first Slightly Foxed Edition – beautifully-produced pocket-sized hardback re-prints of classic memoirs that have been too-long out-of-print – in this case Rosemary Sutcliff’s Blue Remembered Hills.There are ten such volumes now including Adrian Bell’s Corduroy and James Lees-Milne’s Another Self, both of which I recommend without reservation.

The second area of growth has seen the acquisition, re-opening and refurbishment of a second-hand bookshop – yet another venture to fly in the face of prevailing trends – and one that has also been reassuringly successful. Slightly Foxed on Gloucester Road is situated a few hundred yards from the London underground station of the same name and was previously owned and run by Graham Greene’s nephew Nick Dennys. Of course it’s practically everything you’d want a good bookshop to be – discerning, surprising, comfortable, welcoming, satisfying, friendly; an extension of what the magazine is all about really.

On the hunch that a lot of Caught By The River dwellers are likely to be as interested in good writing as they are in good fishing, and on the basis that the magazine has in the past featured essays on Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, Richard Mabey’s Food For Free, Julian Tennyson’s Suffolk Scene and that Sarah Anderson, founder of the The Travel Bookshop in Notting Hill, has lovingly re-assessed Roger Deakin’s Waterlog,I have no hesitation in urging you to seek out Slightly Foxed ( I know that my cultural life would be severely diminished without it.

Post-script : as someone who has spent the majority of my life involved in music and being inspired by the excellence of Slightly Foxed, I have for several years now been harbouring the idea of starting a similar publication but based on writing about great records instead of books. I even met up with Gail on a couple of occasions who, with great patience and graciousness, gave me endless good advice and encouragement and seemed entirely comfortable with the idea of me filching her brilliant idea and adapting it. She couldn’t have been more accommodating. Alas, unforeseen circumstances curtailed my great plans and other considerations in life took precedence, but I’d still like to think that one day it might still happen.