I update this page every few months with information about new books and other related publishing activity. I also maintain a Hobnob Press facebook page, on which I post more frequently.
Tabernacles, Poets and Explorers
Wiltshire has preserved a rich legacy of its nonconformist past, ranging from simple wayside chapels in sequestered valleys to great classical and gothic edifices adorning the cloth towns. I worked on their documentary history for the Wiltshire Record Society in the 1980s, and now my VCH colleague James Holden has completed his monumental survey and history of the county’s nonconformist architectural heritage for the Wiltshire Buildings Record. It is a remarkable achievement.
Musician, artist, poet, Pete Gage surprised his fans last year when we published his Fifty Six Poems, each accompanied by his meticulous, colourful mandalas. His sequel, Gerontius and other poems, will enhance his reputation further, including this time some of his spectacular photography.
Three academic titles complete this early Spring offering of new books. Poet, translator, editor and patron of the arts, Mary Sidney Herbert was a powerful, pioneering Elizabethan woman in a man’s world, who made Wilton House a cultural and literary magnet. This major study by Julia Allen and Christine Bennett aims to redress the neglect that she has suffered over the centuries. William Guise, scion of a long-established county family near Gloucester, set off on the Grand Tour to Italy in 1764 in the company of Edward Gibbon, the historian of Rome’s decline and fall, and kept a meticulous diary of their adventures together – which Paul and Jane Butler rediscovered at his ancestral seat and have transcribed and edited with great care, wisdom and style.
Finally, and not quite ready to go as I write (still struggling with the wretched indexes) is a new edition of John Leland’s Itinerary. Thirty years ago I sold to a publisher (now defunct) the idea of a modern English version of this landmark Tudor document in the history of topography and local history, and I worked on it off and on for ages. Out of print for decades, last Christmas I determined to resuscitate it, and for the new edition I have added much of the material relating to Wales, and written a new introduction which, with the co-operation of leading Leland scholar James Carley, firmly establishes (we think) the chronology of the five principal surviving journeys, undertaken between 1538 and 1544.
All this publishing activity has for me been overshadowed by the tragic loss of my VCH colleague, mentor and friend, Dr James Hodsdon, who died suddenly and completely unexpectedly in January, not much older than me. A distinguished historian of Cheltenham and a leading light in Gloucestershire local history, his passing has left a huge void. For him and his wife Judie I published in 2017 their edition of a Bletchley Park diary, under the title A Grand Gossip, which was designed and set by their daughter Amelia, and we also collaborated last year in Sir Henry Elwes’s history of Colesbourne in the Cotswolds.
This website is becoming increasingly ‘creaky’ and showing its age. Soon I intend there will be a completely new one, professionally designed and incorporating an e-commerce facility, so that at last it will be possible to purchase and pay for books directly from the site. The address will remain the same, and much of the content, but there will be new features, and a much more attractive presentation in (I hope) an easy-maintenance format.
Two more records brought 2021 to an end. By my reckoning the year saw 25 new Hobnob publications, if I double-count paperback and hardback editions of the same title, and include two not officially launched until January 2022. The tally for 2020 was 20. And although I keep trying to cut down the workload there is a flurry of new titles on the way this spring – great variety too. The other record is 154 copies of a single Hobnob title sold over one bookshop counter in two months – John Killah’s brilliant novel, Struck Off, during November and December at Frome’s equally brilliant bookshop, Hunting Raven – it was their number one Christmas bestseller. And that is before we have properly launched and publicised it outside its home territory. My picture shows John signing outside the bookshop on a cold winter’s morning.
Now for the new ones. Some books take longer to appear than others, and it was a little over five years ago that David Elder asked if I would be interested in publishing a book he was writing. It has been well worth waiting for. Edward Thomas Wilson of Cheltenham, after whom the town’s art gallery is named, and father of the Antarctic explorer, was a remarkable man. Victorian physician, scientist, photographer, connoisseur, philanthropist and general municipal improver, Cheltenham owes him a great deal, and now he has the meticulous biography he deserves. ‘He Went about Doing Good’ is published this month, although David signed a few advance copies before Christmas.
Richard Wintle has now completed his trilogy of photographic compilations, based on his long career as the leading photojournalist in the Swindon area. Give us a Neg! focuses on sporting journalism, and is another cornucopia of intriguing, historic and striking photography, which he has designed, page-by-page himself. The cover colour is his too. We’ve had cyan and yellow, and this one is magenta – the significance will be obvious to anyone who works with colour and colour photography.
Almost ready are no fewer than six more titles, which I anticipate will appear over the next two or three months, with at least four more soon afterwards. They include another masterful novel by a Frome author; the authoritative history of Salisbury Playhouse by its archivist; the tragic story of a Westbury mother, the last woman to be hanged for killing her own children; James Holden’s comprehensive history and gazetteer of Wiltshire nonconformist chapels and meeting houses; an account of the remarkable archaeological discoveries at Littlecote Park near Ramsbury; and a new enlarged edition of the famous Tudor traveller and antiquary, John Leland’s, Itinerary – one of the key sources of English historical topography.
In my flat I have a bookcase containing one copy of every Hobnob Press book (part of it appears above), and I am confident that by Easter I shall have filled the fifth of its six shelves. When I have reached that point I’ll pose for a photograph beside it and post it on this website. Hobnob Press also has a Facebook page, which I update more frequently with news and new books, so do search that out and follow it.
Today we should have been partying in Frome, but Covid caution has seen off our celebration. Because today, 9 November, is publication day of John Killah’s gripping comic novel, Struck Off. John is a retired criminal lawyer (in the nicest sense) whose story revolves around a solicitor’s practice in a fictional town not unlike Frome, the misdoings of one of the partners, and the other’s revenge. This is the first Hobnob Press book to involve a dead badger, a Roman orgy and a trip to Mallorca – set against the failing criminal justice system and a somewhat fractured Somerset society. Best of all, it is fast moving, clever and very funny. So no party tonight, but we’ll have a proper celebration when it hits the bestseller list – and not only in Frome.
My unexpected role as publisher to Somerset’s literary elite goes back a few years now, to my first visit to the small publisher’s fair held during the Frome Festival each June (until Covid struck, that is). I sold a few books there, but much more important were the conversations and introductions. So now, what with John’s Struck Off, four other novels (and another nearly ready), Crysse Morrison’s collection of short stories, Deja Lu, two poetry collections and five non-fiction titles – well, I’m getting to know my way round. Of course, what makes it all possible, apart from the talented authors, is a brilliant independent bookshop, the award-winning Winstone’s Hunting Raven. No party tonight, but plenty of vicarious fun to be had when you drop in to buy your copy of John’s new novel – and all the other Hobnob titles.
Looking back on a busy summer
Sarum Chronicle started in the same year that I took over Hobnob Press, 2001, and three of the founding editors, Jane Howells (left), Ruth Newman (right) and myself decided after twenty annual issues to bow out last year. Our successors very kindly treated us to a lunch and presentation at Sarum College in August, and we each received a very fine inscribed clock. Hobnob Press published the first ten issues and several of the companion Sarum Studies booklet series, and I have been involved in typesetting most of the subsequent productions.
This summer has been as productive as ever, with short stories, poetry and a novel (with another to come) emanating from Frome, and important books about Salisbury (its cinema history) and Swindon (a second and third instalment relating to George Ewart Hobbs). These last have been produced largely by their co-authors, with relatively little input from me. But I have been hard at work to bring to publication Tina Richard’s biography of Rudyard Kipling’s parents (illustrious figures in their own right), who spent their retirement and are buried at Tisbury. I have also enjoyed reading and setting a very fine village history and archaeology of a north Wiltshire downland parish, Bishopstone and Little Hinton. Bernard Phillips, its co-author, and I worked as quickly as we could, since we knew that the principal author, Mogs Boon, was terminally ill. She did see the proofs, but sadly the finished book arrived a few days after she died – it will be a memorial to a much-loved local villager. On a happier note Anthea Jones and I have now produced our bestselling edition of Kip’s Gloucestershire engravings as a paperback.
A word more about the vibrant Frome literary scene. My introduction to it came in 2015 I think when I took a stall at the Small Publishers’ Fair, held annually as part of Frome Festival (though not in 2020 nor again this year). Since then I’ve published a number of Frome-related books, notably three by Crysse Morrison (whose latest, Déjà Lu, her short stories, was launched to great acclaim); two new collections by very gifted first-time poets, Pete Gage and David Thompson; a second (of three) novels about Saxon Wessex by Annette Burkitt; and fascinating books about nearby Orchardleigh and Bruton.
In these difficult times independent publishers and booksellers try to stick together, so I must pay tribute to the brilliant bookshops that are my principal (but by no means my only) stockists: Rocketship in Salisbury; Devizes Books; Corsham Books; White Horse in Marlborough; Hunting Raven in Frome; Coates & Parker in Warminster; and Oldfield Park in Bath; not to mention Swindon Library, the Wilts & Swindon History Centre in Chippenham, and a host of museums.
Cautiously back to the Shops
A semblance of normality returning means that bookshops have begun to trade in their traditional, friendly way, welcoming customers in person, and welcoming me too – to stock them up and show them new titles. One pleasure for me over the past few months has been exploring indie bookshops in Gloucestershire, of which there are a number of fine examples, clutching copies of Johannes Kip’s Engravings, by Anthea Jones. This has become something of a hit, with a feature in the current Cotswold Life, and rather more than 300 copies sold already – not bad for a £20 local hardback.
Jo and Russell at Rocketship Bookshop in Salisbury have created a special Hobnob bookshelf to display most of my titles, and this commemorates the fact that Hobnob Press began with a conversation in that very room nearly forty years ago. Two new retail outlets for Hobnob books are Ape or Eden bookshop in Bruton and STEAM railway museum in Swindon.
As usual, I have been kept very busy typesetting and publishing new books, with something of a bias towards the Frome and Bruton area over the last few months. No small publisher fair at Frome Festival again this year, because of Covid, but that hasn’t stopped the region’s many authors putting finger to keyboard. Four new Somerset titles to add this time round, and another four coming soon, along with some important Wiltshire titles – on chapels for the Wiltshire Building Record, histories of Salisbury’s cinema and its Playhouse, and two local biographies – of Rudyard Kipling’s parents (Tisbury) and Mary Sidney Herbert (Wilton). And there will be additions to the series of Gloucester Rugby histories, and the Dorset Record Society.
Wearing a slightly different hat (not very different, actually) I recently ran a webinar for the British Association for Local History on self-publishing local history, which attracted over 200 attendees. I prepared a hand-out to accompany it, and you are welcome to download it. The link appears at the head of this page.
So much going on at present means that this update to my website has been rather delayed, and I have also neglected to keep the Facebook posts going. I shall try to do better from now on, and I intend also to create a new page on this website shortly devoted to the record societies (principally Wiltshire and Dorset) with which I am involved. I am adding details of the latest volumes on the ‘New and Recent Books’ page.
Keeping on Keeping on
This tiresome latest lockdown has been relieved for me by having some very interesting, and technically quite challenging, new books to work on. As I write in early March three titles have now come to fruition and three or four more should be available by early April. First up was a comprehensive survey of the archaeology of Swindon borough (i.e. the whole unitary authority area, not just the town) by Bernard Phillips, much of which he has discovered or been involved in discovering since he began work here in the 1960s. Many fine colour illustrations, and an authoritative text. Then a sequel to the celebration of Wiltshire in poetry by Amanda Hampson – this time a bit further afield, exploring the Jurassic coast of Dorset and South Devon, and again accompanied by the bold and colourful illustrations of artist Sheila Haley, which set off the poems beautifully. The third, and most ambitious, is Anthea Jones’s edition of Johannes Kip’s 60+ engravings of Gloucestershire country houses and their settings, all reproduced in fine detail and with a scholarly illustrated commentary. I think the result has exceeded our hopes, a really handsome volume which we are very proud of.
Coming soon will be the history of Chippenham’s World War I VAD hospital; the glamorous and often scandalous story of the Ladies of Lydiard Park, the mansion near Swindon, and their faithless husbands; and a scholarly study of 17th-century witchcraft in and around Selwood Forest, along the Somerset-Wiltshire border. And I very much hope that soon we shall all be able to go out again and browse in our local bookshops.
2020 - 20
As I predicted, the 2020 tally of new Hobnob titles will be 20 – satisfying in a curious way, during a year when precious little has seemed orderly. And a glance down the page will show that they have ranged in time from the Saxon period to the present, in subject from rugby to photography to medieval nuns, and in location from Cheltenham, Bath, Belfast, the Devon borderland, even a German prison camp – as well as the Hobnob staples, of Salisbury, Swindon and Frome. Alongside the town and village histories have been novels and poetry, biographies, classics reprints and edited texts. What they all have in common is some connection to the west country, and a great deal of dedication and enthusiasm from their authors to their subjects, without any great expectation of handsome financial reward. But who knows, one day there may be a Hobnob blockbuster which will bankroll all the rest – I’ll dream on.
The 2020 score is completed by two December titles, very different but both rather exceptional. Norman Beale, for his fourth Hobnob title, has painstakingly uncovered the valiant but often horrific war record of his father, Ron, from Lydney in the Forest of Dean, who served in the Gloucestershire regiment and was part of the Dunkirk rearguard captured and imprisoned under squalid and brutal conditions. He eventually escaped from a death march, was sheltered by a Czech family and returned home, where he locked up his nightmare experiences and never described them to his family. Norman has meticulously pieced together the near miracle of Ron’s survival, but for which Norman himself would not have existed. Not always a comfortable read, but a marvellous filial homage to a brave man.
Pamela Slocombe’s history of Whaddon, a tiny village near Melksham, is an extraordinary achievement. For one thing, she has been working on it since 1969, over 50 years; and for another it runs to more than 600 pages. And all this for a place that during perhaps 1000 years of existence has probably always had a total population wavering between about 30 and 60, at times even fewer. Mind you, it was for centuries one of the principal seats of a leading west country family, the Longs, and their story occupies nearly half the book. If ever you could describe something as the last word, this must be it – there can’t be anything left to say about Whaddon. So Pam joins an exclusive club of two, the Hobnob 600+ club – the other member is Norman Beale (see above) for his previous book on Jan Ingen Housz. I daren’t ask either of them what they are planning to do next.
A Double Century - Not out
For those not familiar with how ISBNs are organised – those barcodes and numbers on the back covers – I can explain that the 13 digits are packed with meaning. The first three (978 in the case of a book) mean just that, it’s a book; the next (usually 0 or 1) means it is from an English-speaking country; then comes a sequence of numbers denoting the publisher, followed by a unique number given to each publication by that publisher; and finally a check digit, the result of a mathematical calculation on the other numbers. Publishers buy blocks of 10, 100, 1000 etc ISBNs, and I’m telling you all this because in 2009 I bought my second block of 100, and now 11 years later, it is time to fork out for another 100. In fact, with the five books published about now and three more that are imminent, I shall have run out. I think that means that I shall have published 20 books during 2020, far more than ever before, and largely the result of the virus giving my band of authors more time to complete their projects.
Peter Maughan, a novelist with a devoted following, approached me with Under the Apple Boughs, a short, beautifully-crafted ‘journey through the seasons of a West Country year’ very much in the style of Laurie Lee, with a hint of Dylan Thomas, and I have done my best to turn it into an attractive paperback. Meanwhile, and for some time, I have been working with John Payne, a Frome author who has published previously on Catalonia, Bath, the West Country and various literary topics, to bring to fruition a finely conceived book which is partly autobiography and partly social history based on recent generations of his family and his own experience – an experiment in writing history backwards, firmly rooted in Bath and surrounding areas of Somerset and Wiltshire. The first copies of A West Country Homecoming should be delivered to his door about now. William Smith, a retired archivist whom I have known and admired for some 40 years, offered me a characteristically erudite and scholarly study he had just completed on the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey, and this has become Hidden Lives, which is published with the co-operation of the abbey museum. Another, much younger, archivist, Ally McConnell of Gloucestershire Heritage Hub, was responsible for introducing me to George Dowty, whose father, Sir George, founded the pioneering firm of aeronautical engineers which bore his name, and which was one of the largest employers in Cheltenham and Tewkesbury. Ally is cataloguing the Dowty archive, amongst which is Sir George’s autobiography, dictated by him shortly before his death in 1975, discovered by his son and never before published. And hot, not quite off the press, comes the second instalment from the picture archive of Richard Wintle, Swindon’s master press photographer, entitled Another picture . . . another story – some amazing material, and a great celebration of Swindon’s vitality.
In between all this I have finally achieved my ambition to produce a new edition of a book I first edited for Alan Sutton in the 1990s, the ‘madcap adventures’, as I have sometimes called them, of a 17th-century traveller, raconteur and not-terribly-good poet, John Taylor. Born in Gloucester he sought fame (successfully) and fortune (unsuccessfully) in London, where he produced hundreds of broadsides and pamphlets, including 14 journeys all over Britain and to Germany and Prague, as well as lists of carriers and inns. If you would like to sample his work for free, go to the homepage where you can download some of it. And finally, with issue number 20 which has just been published, Ruth Newman, Jane Howells and I are retiring from the editorial team of Sarum Chronicle, the annual journal which we founded in 2001 and with which Hobnob has always been very closely associated (see the Hobnob and Friends page). The journal is in safe hands and will continue, but without us. Sarum Chronicle 20 is a bumper issue, by the way.
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8 Lock Warehouse,