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Rescuing Dorset’s literature

In the series Dorset Lives, Jim Potts meets Frank Kibblewhite, a former teacher, record and bookshop owner and one-time literary cataloguer, who is now carving out a niche in publishing and re-publishing Dorset authors’ work

Sundial Press describe themselves as a small, independent publishing house committed to introducing distinctive literature to a discerning readership. Their primary focus is to rescue works long out of print from an undeserved oblivion, but they will occasionally publish a distinguished new work by a living author.

Frank Kibblewhite in contemplative mood with a selection of Sundial titles

It is twenty-five years since Sundial’s Frank Kibblewhite moved to Mappowder – the village where the author T F Powys had lived for the last thirteen years of his life. Before then, Frank had taught at St Aldate’s College, Oxford, and opened three record shops in Maidenhead. The first was a small classical record shop in November 1978 which experienced an impressive Christmas turnover, but struggled through the first quarter of the new year before he decided to introduce pop music and jazz; turnover doubled almost immediately. It proved a very successful combination and after eighteen months he opened a separate classical-only shop, and then a much larger shop, which proved immensely popular. Despite business success, he gradually began to lose interest and when the leases ended in 1987, he made up his mind to pursue other passions.
Although he had been born in Bristol and raised in Maidenhead, he regularly visited his paternal grandparents in Wimborne and explored much of the nearby countryside as well as many of the surrounding villages and towns, including Dorchester. Over time he developed a deep-rooted love of Dorset with a strong desire to one day make it his home. The 1987 move to Dorset ushered in an extraordinary and wonderful period; from Mappowder he explored Dorset’s beautiful villages and took in the stunning diversity of landscape and coastline. Frank became involved with rare books and issued catalogues of 20th-century first editions. He exhibited at occasional book fairs and became sufficiently well known in his field of expertise to establish a modest but viable book business.
His particular focus on Dorset books, with an emphasis on the Powys family, led to him being invited to give talks to local societies. These invitations increased and soon he was lecturing on the Powys brothers, Thomas Hardy and then a wider range of 20th-century authors when he linked with both the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and Bristol University’s Department for Continuing Education.
After a decade of lecturing he realised another ambition when he opened a bookshop in Sidmouth. Running a single shop from a distance of nearly fifty miles was not without its problems, though. A few years later, he received an offer for the purchase of the business which he could not refuse. With time on his hands, and having both lectured on and sold books, Frank now decided to publish them.
A love for the novel The Blackthorn Winter by Philippa Powys – an ‘untutored writer of great elemental power’ – prompted him to take the first steps to bring back into print this ‘rare, interesting, unusual, raw novel of gypsy and country life’. With no experience of publishing, it took six months before the printed books arrived, a day he will never forget: ‘I’m a publisher,’ he declared triumphantly.

With a copy of The Sailor’s Return, in front of the Sailor’s Return

Since then, Frank has published several more volumes by members of the Powys family, including Theodore (Kindness in a Corner and Unclay), Llewelyn (Durdle Door to Dartmoor: Wessex Essays) and Littleton (The Joy of it), but is now turning his attention to other Dorset authors. David Garnett’s The Sailor’s Return is essentially about the nature of prejudice and its consequences. A remarkably liberated and daring novel at the time of its first publication (1925), it deals with deeply entrenched racism in British society in a Dorset village. In his review of the novel Llewelyn Powys wrote that it is ‘unequalled in its flawless meanderings’.

A selection of Sundial-published titles

Frank is particularly excited about another recently published title: Florence, Mistress of Max Gate, by Peter Tait, Headmaster of Sherborne Prep. It is a compelling biographical novel about the relationship between Thomas Hardy and Florence, his second wife. In his compelling recreation of Florence’s life, the author tells of a letter  that Thomas Hardy had written to her on the eve of their wedding, which she kept until her death, when, under instructions, it was destroyed … ‘And with it died part of the secret, the secret that helped explain Florence. For, as Thomas found out to his cost, there was more to Florence than was evident from their first meeting. And so began their trail of deceptions, first of Emma (Thomas’s first wife), then of their friends and, finally, of us all.’
Looking to the future, having published Red Die – A Dorset Mystery by Roger Norman, Sundial will release a new edition of his Albion’s Dream, previously issued by Faber & Faber, followed by the author’s new novel, Green Man, which is also set in Dorset. Sundial are also planning to publish The Deadly Joker, a crime novel by Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day-Lewis), set in the Dorset village of Plush and inspired by the author’s stay at the pub, The Brace of Pheasants.

For a full list of upcoming publications, visit or contact them by post at Sundial House, Sherborne, Dorset DT9 4BS or by telephone on 01935 814113.

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