Last summer I made a literary pilgrimage along Hadrian’s Wall. At the end of our long walk—ostensibly 84 miles, unless you get lost several times, *cough*—I was recuperating in the town of Hexham before heading down to check out the Lake District, Peter Rabbit and Swallows & Amazons territory.
I’d only brought hiking shoes and sandals, and it was so very cold and wet on the day I arrived. As I was wandering up through the old part of town, past the first designated “gaol,” looking for bandages and darling not-hiking socks to wear with my sandals, I happened to see an alley. I’d missed it the first time through. Think Diagon Alley—I was delighted to find these little passages in so many English towns and cities.
And there I found Cogito Books. Closed. I peered in the window for many minutes, reading the titles, admiring the window display. I kept circling by during the day’s exploring, hoping they’d be open. And the next day, too. Finally, on the third day, still raining and Novemberish, success.
The shopkeeper had heard of my beloved Rosemary Sutcliff, but admitted they didn’t sell many copies of her work. So we chatted about other books, and then, venturing to the nook at the back of the shop, I found her.
There on the table were several reprint editions of forgotten memoirs published by Slightly Foxed, including Blue Remembered Hills: A Recollection. I have a beat-up copy of the homely 1980s paperback, which has tiny print and yellowed pages. The cover features a photo of Sutcliff as a girl, and there are few hints in her lovely, serious face of the Still’s disease that caused her so much pain and would eventually cause her to give up painting miniatures and take up writing. (Coincidentally, Still’s disease is a feature of two recent-ish movies, adult-onset in The Big Sick and Maudie.)
Later I would learn that Slightly Foxed not only publishes reprint editions of forgotten treasures, but also a magazine for readers:
“The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach. Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine.”
I’d read Remembered Hills during the years when the boys and I couldn’t get enough of Sutcliff. I read aloud all of her historical novels for children, even the mediocre—if you’ve never read an author’s entire body of work, I recommend it. A fascinating exercise. Her memoir is lovely and heartbreaking. I don’t recall ever seeing a more tender and honest depiction of childhood or of disability and how it affects the body and mind of the child and the relationship of the child and mother.
And there on the table in Cogito Books was the beautiful edition that her work deserves.
Surprise number one.
And then! I found myself attracted to a display, a collection of books with silver-grey covers, very simple design. Plain. I would not have been drawn to an individual volume. But in aggregate! Compelling. I spent a good while poking through the pile, learning about the authors and the publisher, Persephone Books.
I was quite surprised to read that “Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.”
Be still my heart.
They also publish a slender catalogue, which I decided to take to a nearby coffee shop to help me decide which title to choose.
Surprise number two.
Slightly Foxed, Persephone Books—this grey day was getting brighter.
While I had been chatting with the shopkeeper, another customer joined in the conversation and then followed me out the door. I was initially a little apprehensive about this fellow because he was wearing Converse tennies, which, I’m sorry to report, on men over forty I tend to associate with utter douchebaggery.
This gentleman, Pat, had heard me mention that I work at a university, in music. He also works in higher education, at an arts college. We discussed the burdens that artists and musicians face, the downside to the gig economy. We talked about Rosemary Sutcliff, her gift for “painting” a landscape in her writing, her ability to create real and believable characters with such tenderness, when, being disabled, presumably, she’d been marginalized, and, controlled by her mother, again, presumably, hadn’t ever had a romantic relationship.
We had the easy intimacy of strangers, and the talk trailed out into the street. Pat asked about my travels, and I shared that I was partially motivated to carpe the diem because a friend of mine had died very suddenly two days before my last birthday. His father had died just two weeks prior to our conversation on the cobblestones, in the drizzling rain. We exchanged brief stories about burden and privilege, sorting the detritus of a lifetime.
For fifteen minutes or so, I had a friend.
Surprise number three.
I took my copy of Sutcliff’s memoir and my Persephone treasure to a coffee shop, where I read the catalogue cover to cover. It was warm and quiet, not crowded, the pleasant hour punctuated by a wee mishap with the plumbing. I couldn’t find the handle to flush, so I pulled a string hanging from the ceiling and set off an alarm.
“You okay in there, ma’am? Do you need some assistance?”
Clutching Persephone, I poked my head out the door to confess. I am an idiot.
Fed and only mildly embarrassed, I returned to Cogito Books and bought Amber Reeves’s 1914 novel, A Lady and Her Husband, a book so appropriate to my journey last summer, it felt as if my life were scripted. I finished it later that week on the train to Portsmouth.
During my three weeks abroad, there were many long days of walking, so many sheep and cows, various train mishaps, lovely conversations and food, plumbing confusion…But those few hours in Hexham were pivotal, partly because they were the midpoint of the trip, and mostly because of the magic that happened in that little bookshop.
And in the unlikely event that you read this, Pat, you totally rocked the Converse.