October 2004

Colleen Mondor

features

Slightly Foxed: The Most Desirable New Magazine

Earlier this year I had the great pleasure of receiving the very first issue of Slightly Foxed magazine. As a British publication it seems to have slid under the U.S. reading radar, leaving most American book lovers unaware that there is a new and fantastic source available to them. It ranks as one of the more unusual publications I have ever come across and manages to be both literary and easily readable. I consider myself fairly well read but Slightly Foxed never fails to dazzle me upon its arrival. The books reviewed within its pages are always unique and original but never intimidating. They are the kind of books that appeal to any reader because they cover every subject imaginable. As Publisher and Co-Editor Gail Pirkis explained in a recent e-mail, “The articles in Slightly Foxed cover everything from serious fiction to comic novels, history and biography, travel, science, letters and memoirs, children’s books and books that simply defy classification.”

Pirkis and Co-Editor Hazel Wood began producing Slightly Foxed earlier this year in response to personal frustration over the UK publishing industry. Both editors have long careers in both publishing and writing and are well acquainted with the habits of big companies to support a few “big” books to the detriment of other worthy titles. Slightly Foxed seeks to balance that disparity by focusing on about twenty books in each issue that have “stood the test of time” or are recent publications that “don’t receive much publicity.” Each quarterly issue thus seeks to elevate the overlooked to a higher level of notice. In a recent interview Wood explained, “Our aim is to fill a gap for them [readers] which a friendly local bookseller might once have filled by introducing -- or even reintroducing -- them to the thousands of good books that are in print, but which never appear in the review pages, or sometimes even on bookshop shelves.”

On a practical level this means subscribers can expect to read articles on authors like Czechoslovakian Karel Capek’s and his 1925 travel memoir, Letters from England. Surprisingly, the article that follows Capek’s observations of British politics and society is about Cyra McFadden and her social satire on Marin County, California ,published in 1976. Clearly the only thing these books have in common is one of the editors’ basic tenets for their contributors: “the books they discuss should be in print and, crucially, that they must feel passionate about them.” Another example of Slightly Foxed at work is the novel Beer in the Snooker Club by Egyptian author Waguih Ghali. In Issue 1 of the magazine Anthony Sattin wrote quite brilliantly about this rather explosive account of dissatisfied youth in Cairo that was originally published in 1964. In Issue 2 Sattin turned to Ghali himself and discussed biographer Diana Athill’s book, After a Funeral, which is a moving account of Ghali’s suicide after his publishing success. Now I am rabidly curious about Ghali, Athill and also Sattin who has apparently just published a book about 18th century London and North Africa and from his Slightly Foxed articles clearly has a way with words.

And there is much more. There are articles on the often overlooked genre of garden writing, something which contributor Ursula Buchan artfully observes has been lost in an industry that loves “the highly illustrated, large-format gardening book which is expensive to produce, full of dreamy ‘inspirational’ colour photographs and often with a truncated and colorless text…” I’ll take Henry Mitchell over that any day and now, thanks to Buchan, I’ll be looking for Charles Elliott as well. For those who like travel writing there is Julia Keay on Allan Sealy’s The Everest Hotel and Ariane Bankes on Ring of Bright Water, the memoirs of Gavin Maxwell. Or you could go more to the source and read about publisher Eland Books, who specialize in travel books from distant places and times and form a bit of “two-man United Nations,” according to Wood who profiled the company in Issue 3.

The article on Eland Books is one of several non-review articles that cover subjects that Pirkis refers to as “book related but not about specific books.” In this vein there are brief notes by Simon Brett on bookplates and engravings, Susan Leiper’s ongoing series on the Chinese Book and a fascinating bit by Julia Keay on compiling the index for her husband John’s historical tract on the Middle East while touring the Mekong River. (This involved packing 400 pages of text through Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Burma and is probably not the method of indexing most recommended by the author, but a hysterical read for all of us!) The winter issue promises a piece on a “publishing disaster” as well as more on independent publishers, and other bookish subjects.

Beyond the excellent content, Slightly Foxed also offers a very elegant design. According to Pirkis this is an important part of the total package. “We also decided we wanted to produce something that is beautiful to look at and to hold -- something that will be collected and treasured rather than thrown in the recycling bin.” Each issue arrives in an appealing digest-sized format with high quality paper and original cover artwork commissioned each quarter. They are also illustrated throughout with photos or drawings appropriate to specific articles. The issues are saturated with an aura of care and quality and prove to be both a tactile as well as intellectual reading pleasure. It would have been an admirable thing if Pirkis and Wood had simply set out to create a smart and witty reading magazine, to accomplish that goal while also making their final product a joy to have and hold is truly impressive.

Ultimately Slightly Foxed seeks to be the kind of reading matter that its creators would most like read themselves. Both Pirkis and Wood are “compulsive readers who enjoy books on practically any subject provided they are very well-written.” They are the best sort of people to be producing a magazine for readers and the fact that they are so committed to doing this to the highest of standards just makes the end result an even better deal for their subscribers. Currently there are several hundred subscribers to Slightly Foxed in the U.S. but this number should be much much higher. Yes, it initially appears to be an expensive subscription, but at about $75 annually for overseas shipping it is actually a fantastic deal. Broken down, that is actually just over $18 per issue. All of us will spend that much each season on at least one book we will regret buying but fell for because of a lot of glitzy publicity and popcorn level reviews. Slightly Foxed offers a chance to discover about eighty books a year that most of us have never heard of but all of us will wonder about. Strike a blow for good reading everywhere and order a sample issue. As Pirkis told me, “Slightly Foxed is not about lit-crit but about the sheer pleasure of reading." The world is tough enough people, and we all deserve something as flat out good to read as Slightly Foxed. It’s all about books, really good books, and as a very satisfied subscriber, I couldn’t be happier to have found this magazine.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to work on my Christmas list. After reviewing my issues of Slightly Foxed it now includes The Music of Long Verney: Twenty Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner, From Wilder Shores and Journey into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch, The Everest Hotel by Allan Sealy, Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson, and Attic in Greece by Austen Kark. If my husband is lucky the holidays will come and go before my next issue of the magazine arrives. Otherwise… well let’s just say I’m fairly confident that list is going to grow!