Posted by Jane McMorland Hunter on December 14th, 2021
I don’t think Slightly Foxed has ever published a book which is not both beautiful and interesting. Perhaps that’s a slightly sweeping statement but I really think it’s true. I worked amongst the Foxes for a time so I do know the care that is taken over choosing the titles and producing the books. This winter they have published two very different books, both completely charming.
A Countryman’s Winter Notebook by Adrian Bell This was always going to be a favourite. Born in 1901, Adrian Bell was an interesting man, his first and probably most lasting ambition was to become a poet but, realising he needed to earn his living and not wanting to work in an office, he left London at nineteen and became an apprentice to a yeoman farmer. From there he went on to own two of his own farms and write books and articles on farming and the countryside. He may not have gained fame as a poet but his writing is lyrical and poetic whether he is describing birdsong or some unspeakable farming task.
From 1950 to 1980 he wrote ‘A Countryman’s Notebook’, a weekly column for the Eastern Daily Press, the newspaper for Suffolk and Norfolk. He wrote nearly 1,600 essays but only a fraction have ever been republished. Richard Hawking, an expert on Adrian Bell’s writing, has selected over fifty of the very best wintery pieces for Slightly Foxed. The result is a delightful companion to the winter months in all their glories and hardships: the dancing of a dead leaf, the unexpected pleasures of bad weather on Sundays or the memories brought to life by a Christmas card.
When asked about writing these essays, Adrian Bell said: ‘What I try to do is to show a unique moment which will never come again. It is like putting a framework around a moment of life, just as the French Impressionists did.’ He has succeeded.
Letters to Michael, Charles Phillipson Having been to boarding school (which I loved – think Malory Towers rather than Lowood), I know the importance of letters from home. Mundane news such as the weather, a train commute or the state of the garden take on a disproportionate significance.
The letters in this wonderful collection were written to Michael by his father between February 1945 and October 1947 and follow a set format: half letter, half drawing. The letters are short, usually relating a single item of home news or something that his father has noticed which has amused him or sparked his imagination. For as well as being a talented artist, Charles Philipson has a vivid imagination and a splendid sense of humour. The pictures range from everyday life, often seen from a slightly quirky angle, to fantasies such as having a pet kangaroo or riding on a firework. The pictures were often drawn quickly during Charles’ lunch-break on office scrap paper but they capture a moment just as perfectly as Adrian Bell does in his Countryman’s Notebook.
The drawings contain a wealth of detail and often tell a story themselves: the artist hard at work at his desk, a very upright man on a penny farthing bicycle or the joy of V.E. Day. The letters can be read straight through or dipped into at random, either way each page is an utter delight; it is impossible to look at any of these letters and not smile. The introduction, written by Michael, supplies the background information to the letters and tells the story of his father – clearly a remarkable man I would love to have received letters from and met.