01 January 2008

Hill. Mercian Hyms, 1971. (R.I.P. Peter Jolliffe)

"King of the perennial holly- groves, the riven sand- stone: overlord of the M5 : architect of the historic rampart and ditch, the citadel at Tamworth, the summer hermitage in Holy Cross : guardian of the Welsh Bridge and the Iron Bridge : contractor to the desirable new estates : saltmaster : money- changer : commisioner for oaths : martyrologist : the friend of Charlemagne.

'I liked that', said Offa, 'sing it again.'"

Geoffrey Hill. MERCIAN HYMNS. Andre Deutsch, London 1971.

Current Selling Prices
$550 - $1000 /£270-£500

I found this book at the bottom of a box this New Year morning. I had read it before in paperback -a collection of 30 prose hymns, the first of which is quoted above. A superb achievement by Hill, possibly his finest work; I had not realised its value until I checked it out and was surprised to find no copy less than $640 and a signed presentation from the author to my old professor at Southampton, the fine Catholic poet F.T. Prince at $2000+. A nice find. The point about the book that most sellers emphasise is that the boards have a tendency to splay and unsplayed copy are prized. Mine was almost completely unsplayed, joy of joys.

Whether people step forward eager to buy at £300 is another matter. I am a believer in the old bookseller's maxim 'the right price is the wrong price' and feel that very clean copies probably sells at between £200 and £300 and higher priced copies sit on the web for long tranches of time. It was a rather sad book to find as formerly I would have quoted it to friend and colleague Peter Jolliffe of Ulysses who died over Christmas.

Peter was a great dealer, a good poet himself and coincidentally a great admirer of Geoffrey Hill. His favourite poet was probably W.S Graham. He was honest, highly intelligent (Oxford) had great integrity and a sweet nature. A little shy and extremely modest - he was not one of those Oxford guys who keeps reminding you that he went there. He was not old and his health had been compromised for a long time but he had soldiered on uncomplainingly in his Museum street shop. A natural stoic (except in the case of a book missed from a catalogue!) I have an abiding memory of him staying the night at a house my wife and I had rented in the Aptos Hills about 1995 - I offered Peter the sofa but in the morning I found him asleep sitting up in an armchair with a sort of beatific look on his face. As I recall we set off on the morning tide to scout Monterey and Pacific Grove (via Moss landing where Peter hit a good shelf of poetry and bought some of them from an old lady bookseller who had never heard of Larkin, Betjeman or Heaney.) Last word to Geoffrey Hill for Peter -- from the 24th Mercian hymn - "'Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum' dust in the eyes, on clawing wings, and lips."

Adios Peter - for the moment the great world of books feels hollow and flat without you.
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