Slightly Foxed – A Long Term Affair of books, Quarterly Magazines and so much more

Slightly Foxed – A Long Term Affair

My addiction, affair, attachment to the Slightly Foxed Quarterly, books and everything else began in about 2008 or 2009. I had spotted the Quarterly magazine in Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge, but was a bit confused as to what it actually was; a small booklet, full of articles about books? Not reviews of the latest titles or bestsellers, but older books, sometimes very obscure, or authors that I had barely heard of but sounded impressive.

It was only when we moved to a large village / small town in Northumberland that I found that I knew very few people and was at home virtually all the time. I once again happened on Slightly Foxed and ordered a copy of the latest Quarterly (it comes out Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter). I enjoyed it so much with its contents, tempting me to buy and track down books – classics by well known authors, books I had just about heard of, pieces about how books had inspired people, lingered in memories, entertained and enlightened at a significant point in the writer’s life. Some of the writers of the articles, short pieces, often with small illustrations, were well known in their own right, not necessarily for writing, while others were more obscure. Some of the pieces were less interesting, others gave real insight into the books they were writing about. If I had read the book or knew the author’s work well, they were significant, possibly giving more details as to why I had enjoyed them, others were just brilliant pieces. I ordered all the back copies up until that date; while not cheap they were always readable, especially if I could devote time to them.

We then discovered that Slightly Foxed were producing limited editions of autobiographies, beginning with Rosemary Sutcliffe’s “Blue Remembered Hills”, and my husband was able to order the first four all on the same number. Again, I believe they quite early on settled on four editions a year, and I have collected them ever since, all on the same number. They also produced various sets of books, often with an eye to children, also available as limited editions on “my” number. Thus, I have collected “The Carey Novels” by Ronald Welch, telling stirring tales of a family from the Crusades onwards from a family member’s point of view in 1095 through to a Tank Commander in 1918. There is also a set of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s books, including the wonderful “Eagle of the Ninth”, which my husband devoured. So many beautiful books, produced with loving care (there is a fascinating video of the making of a limited edition), a decoration for every home. Now many of the titles are available in unnumbered editions in various formats.

The other aspect of Slightly Foxed that I have especially enjoyed are the podcasts. They used to be monthly, now they are more spaced out and longer. We have greatly enjoyed them, listening to them in the car mainly. As I am not a great fan of podcasts and audio books generally, that is high praise. Many diverse – though always book related – topics have been discussed with guests. My favourite was the Golden Age of Crime edition, with Martin Edwards as a contributor to a wide -ranging discussion.

So the point of this essay is to introduce or remind you of the world of Slightly Foxed. Anyone can click on the link to read about the wonderous world of gentle book exploration and frankly, love. There is a free email newsletter which can be sent which includes pieces from the Quarterly and news of podcasts and offers as well as good natured book chat. You could buy a Quarterly or subscribe, back issues being available. If you live in the UK is obviously cheaper to receive a magazine through the post, though the good people of Slightly Foxed will post to most places in the world. They have many fans in far flung places! The latest issue, number 76, Winter 2022, is available for £12, which is a good taster. There are books, notebooks, bags and other wonderous items also available. Subscribing to the Quarterly also reduces the prices of many of these items, as well as giving access to digital back issues with a full index and subscribing for longer periods also reduces the price.

So Slightly Foxed is something I enjoy. Every book mentioned is given its publisher and cost, or SF will help track down copies of those no longer in print. All the items I have ever ordered have turned up in perfect condition and beautifully produced. It’s not a cheap hobby, but a genuinely comforting, reassuring and lovely bookish thing to collect. With friendly people on the end of the phone, talking on the podcast and sending out wonderful things, long may it continue!

The Season by Sophia Holloway – a lovely Regency novel of misunderstandings, deep feelings and gentle humour

The Season by Sophia Holloway

Anyone who has read any books set in the Regency period, or seen a drama set in the time frame, will know that “The Season” is when young women are introduced to society and potential husbands by older women. In the case of Henrietta, the main protagonist of this novel, as her mother died many years before, she is to be introduced by Lady Elstead along with her own daughter Caroline. From the first, her ladyship has compiled a list of suitors that would be worthy of Henrietta, who will be a significant heiress as well as a beautiful woman. Understandably she has more ambition for her own daughter, and like any other sponsoring lady she has a few ideas of how to effect the best introductions and give the girls the best chance. Henrietta has been brought up with her father and his godson, the slightly older and local Lord Charles Henfield. While she always treated him as a brother, it is possible that they have both developed feelings for each other that go beyond the sibling relationship, but neither can really articulate that before the Season begins. As in many books in this genre, misunderstandings and mistakes occur, but Henrietta is an original and unusual heroine who speaks her mind, and there is so much humour and feeling in this book, I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel.

Holloway has done an excellent job setting very real and relatable people in a carefully drawn and accurate setting. Not that the immense amount of research behind this novel ever stalls or slows the narrative; Holloway is aware of the alternative attractions of the Season apart from set piece balls and parties, the less formal meetings that can have a real impact on budding relationships. Not that she keeps all the focus on the female characters and their progress; Holloway draws excellent pictures of the men who turn up in London at this time, showing various levels of enthusiasm for the possibilities of finding a wife. Like Henrietta in her secret feelings from the beginning of the novel, Charles feels a little at sea in a situation that he ought to be comfortable with based on his age and experience. Caroline’s story is by turns funny and heartfelt, innocent and surprising, affecting various generations and participants in the social whirl of the intense time of social interactions.

I thought this was a lovely story, right from Henrietta’s initial nervousness at going to London as a new experience, but also leaving her beloved father and all she has ever known. I liked the way that she didn’t realise how different and therefore attractive she was in her honest reactions to the attentions of the men around her. Her loyalty to her friend is touching, amidst all her own secret feelings for one person and her confusion about what is happening. She is trying to be grown up and appear confident but is so well drawn as really nervous of what she is doing. Charles is at sea for much of the novel but takes advice from some surprising sources and is willing to act for everyone’s advantage. This is a really enjoyable, sometimes surprising, always lovely read, and I thoroughly recommend it as a satisfying historical romance in so many ways.  

Andy Seed’s Three Books of humourous memoirs of teaching in Yorkshire – “All Teachers Great and Small”, “All Teachers Wise and Wonderful” and “All Teachers Bright and beautiful”

Andy Seed and three books of School Humour – “All Teachers Great and Small”, “All Teachers Wise and Wonderful” and “All Teachers Bright and Beautiful”

One of the delights of visiting a library, especially one in a lovely location that you cannot often get to, is discovering new authors that it is possible to try for free. In Orkney library I discovered Andy Seed’s second book, All Teachers Wise and Wonderful” which was an absolute joy. As you may guess from the title, it is set in the Yorkshire Dales, where a certain real-life vet set his novels of Yorkshire farmers and characters. In this set of three books, Andy recounts his experiences of being a young teacher – Memoirs of Lessons and Life in the Yorkshire Dales. They are full of genuine humour, the minor dramas and excitement of everyday life in villages where one of the few institutions is a school. All three books each focus on the children in his class over three academic years. While each chapter is given the name of a child, they are amalgamation of children that Andy encountered during his career. The other element is Andy’s story of setting up home with his new wife Barbara in the beautiful places which are local to the school, with the huge distances from other houses, moves to temporary homes and the challenges of unique buildings with collapsible ceilings and infestations. They are also very strong on the local characters who inhabit the pub, work on houses and generally people the beautiful Dales. Other characters are the staff in the school, whose sense of humour, good ideas and experience Andy draws on. These are books to enjoy with realistic situations involving the stresses of teaching every day. From shortages of resources to the special days when things go anything but to plan, to the challenges of invading governors and student teachers, these are lively books which I found a great distraction.

I found a copy of the first book, “All Teachers Great and Small” in a Waterstones looking a bit lonely. It tells the story of how Andy gets his first teaching job in Cragthwaite School and encounters the head, Howard Raven, who has run the school for so long according to his dated and fearsome set of rules and expectations. The other staff have been there for a very long time and are soon able to help and support Andy when he seems overwhelmed. I found his wife Barbara particularly relatable, especially when she finds herself a bit lonely and without a job in a beautiful setting. With a class unused to day trips out of school, Andy finds it a steep challenge to visit an apparently safe site. These books are set pre 2000 when Andy was teaching, and perhaps there are surprising attitudes to the government rulings on curriculum and other aspects of school life. What always comes through is the often-unconscious humour provided by the wide variety of children, from the farming community children who would really prefer to be outside, through to the children from wealthier backgrounds.

The second book, which I read first, was just very funny as a new head at the school had swept away the archaic rules and atmosphere. The standout section for me came nearly at the end, when a sports day so nearly descends into anarchy. The writing here made me laugh out loud, reminding me of similar situations in real life. Not that Andy’s life outside school is without incident, with an increasing family to be concerned about.

The third book, “All Teachers Bright and Beautiful”, continues the same themes so well introduced in the first two books. An amazing voice is discovered at Christmas, a student teacher makes some classic mistakes, and a Parents’ Evening turns into a testing situation for most.

This is a series of books which I think is worth tracking down. I think it is definitely possible to begin with any one of them, though the first one is the best place to start. Enjoyable, funny and the sort of books to read at any time of the year, I thoroughly recommend them to fans of school memoirs, those who like books set in the Yorkshire Dales, and anyone in search of genuinely funny reads.    

A Christmas Miracle for the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas

A Christmas Miracle for the Railway Girls by Maisie Thomas

A new Railway Girls book is always a cause for excitement, and this one is no exception. Set in Manchester in 1942, this enjoyable novel continues the story of a group of women who work on the railways as part of their war effort, though it would work as a standalone. Like the other books in the series, the group of women get on extremely well despite their various ages and backgrounds. They offer mutual support to each other in difficult times, they celebrate the good events, and they are good friends even when circumstance may threaten to keep them apart. They welcome newer people into the group and are genuinely concerned for the well being of the others. As always, the research behind the story is impeccable, in the somewhat specialised requirements for cleaning signal lamps for example, and the physical demands and hazards of literally lifting and replacing the permanent way for gangs of women with little mechanical help. Not that this is a narrative that gets bogged down in details; they give depth to the story in the characters’ actions. The plot is strong, the tricky situations are well handled, and although it is set in wartime, some of the issues will still resonate in contemporary life. The characters are or soon become friends, the situations are relatable, and the interactions between the women fascinating. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this lovely and thought-provoking book, especially at this time of year.

As with the earlier books, there are three point of view characters whose stories are highlighted amidst the overall storyline. Cordelia is one of the older women and comes from a wealthy background. Her main concern in this story is her daughter Emily who falls in love for the first time, although her father is opposed to her choice. As she watches her daughter struggle with the confines of wartime romance as well as her father’s disapproval, Cordelia remembers her own first love, and remembers the problems of secrecy when everything feels so intense. Mabel meanwhile reflects on problems faced by others while she enjoys her time with Harry.  In trying to help she unwittingly triggers more problems for people she has come to care about.  Colette’s story is the most dramatic in the novel. She has made a choice that has undoubtedly changed her life, but as her circumstances are changed drastically everyone who knows her is affected in some way. Her return to Manchester recreates a situation she had been desperate to escape, and now her future seems perilously limited.

This is a book which balances the various elements and themes in a setting which I found fascinating. I really enjoyed the ways in which the characters support each other even when it is not easy, and the way that the women must show imagination and courage to support others and cope with their own challenges. This is not a book of neat solutions and unlikely romances; it is a book which clearly expresses what it felt like to live during a war that affected everyone both close and far away. I recommend this book as a thoroughly good read which is difficult to put down as it is so involving and thoughtful.   

Those who follow this blog may well have wondered why I have been missing so many days. More seriously, some authors I know were expecting reviews of their books. I must apologise to them especially as I hate letting people down. Unfortunately we have had a a major health crisis in the family which is not resolved, and I have not been able to read at all, let alone write reviews. This book I read a few weeks ago and really enjoyed it, and I am so pleased to be able to review it at last. I will be popping up with reviews as and when – especially when I finally manage to read a book!