30 June 2008

Arson 1942 / Toni del Renzio

Toni del Renzio. ARSON. AN ARDENT REVIEW. Part One of a Surrealist Manifestation. London, 1942.

Current Selling Prices
$250-$600 /£120-£300

Although billed as 'Part One' this was the only issue of this surrealist magazine of 'incendiary innocence' ever to appear. Several other magazines, mostly smaller in format and associated with E.L.T. Mesens appeared and all have become quite hard to find and consequently expensive. Del Renzio was a key figure in British Surrealism, never a burgeoning movement but oddly attractive and now quite collectable. Under the headline 'SUPERDAD' the art journal 'Studio' published this obituary for him in Febuary 2007:-
Toni del Renzio has died aged 91. Truer than life always, he was born to a landed Italian family outside St Petersburg, where his father was a diplomat to the Tsarist court. He had a legendary and varied life, not least in contributing to Studio International, with whose editor, Peter Townsend, he established a natural rapport. Fluent in several languages, he had fought in the Spanish Civil War but ended up in the lap of the Surrealist movement in Paris. On eventual arrival in London, he founded the Surrealist magazine Arson. In 1951 he joined the Institute of Contemporary Arts and was involved on exhibition panels and juries. For a time back in Italy, he became the Fashion Editor for Harpers Bazaar, and then reorganised the Milanese magazine Novita as Vogue Italia. He staggered his friends and acquaintances much later on by becoming, at the age of 70, the father of quadruplets, two sons and two daughters: and then wrote about it as if it was the most natural thing in the world, which for del Renzio, it was. His métier was the surrealist collage. He became distinguished as a teacher, both at Bath and subsequently at Canterbury, where he was Head of Art and Design History. Vale, ti saluto, Toni del Renzio, maestro.
Antonio Romanov del Renzio dei Rossi di Castelleone e Venosa (to give him his full name) was a mercurial character and as a surrealist spent a lot of time engaged in aesthetic and political arguments, being at one time being considered a monster by the Mesens crowd. His key work 'Arson' was partially financed by Ithell Colquhoun whom he married in 1943 and divorced in 1948. He was also, briefly, the lover of the surrealist painter Emmy Bridgwater. In 1942 he also mounted a London exhibition entitled Surrealism resulting in more general recognition for the movement. 'Arson' was printed on turquoise stock and decorated on the front cover with surrealistic appropriations of steel engravings, printed in purple. Collage was a favourite medium for del Renzio. Contributors included Robert Melville, Giorgio de Chirico, Conroy Maddox, Nicolas Calas, Pierre Mabille + an interview with André Breton. Books by TDR are quite collectable--his 1968/ 1969 paperback on hippies 'The Flower Children' (no copies anywhere) must be worth £30 by now and his 1971 book 'After a Fashion' is highly elusive.

VALUE? A copy of Arson, not nice but complete, went through Ebay earlier this year at $199. There are 2 copies at ABE as we speak at £300 (call it $600) neither fine and one with chips at the edges. It probably sells easily at $300. £300 may be achievable as you have to have it if you collect British surrealism. The entire printed output of the British cadre of the movement would probably fit in one regular book box. I guess the top book would be Nancy Cunard's 'Salvo for Russia' also London, 1942. It was co-edited by the artist John Banting. 100 copies printed, last auction record £130 in 1976. I want it.

Outlook? Unknowable, search me guv etc., Pressed for an opinion I would say healthy - because it's quirky, visual and ephemeral. Below is a pic (mixed media and watercolour on paper) by the equally longlived (Birmingham) surrealist Conroy Maddox from 1940, that gives a flavour of the movement.

29 June 2008

Tall Tales from the Trade 2

It's 1977, in the year of the Jubilee, punk rock is in the air, Big Jim Callaghan is in Downing Street and a bookseller in King's Cross London is involved in a long - running dispute over rent with a corrupt and greedy landlord. The landlord, call him Rachman, wants him out so that he can develop the building into flats and keeps raising the rent and hassling the young bookseller at every opportunity.

The guy supposedly owes £5000 in back rent and 'reparations' and on a Thursday evening a bailiff in a bowler hat arrives with a couple of thuggish sidekicks to seize the guy's entire stock in lieu of this amount. It is a very smart and well chosen stock worth £50K minimum but if seized it will be sold at Pecksniffs - a seedy auction house specialising in bankrupt stock. It will probably make a tenth of its true value and our bookseller will be destitute -sans money and sans books. He manages to persuade the bowler hatted one to accept £100 and says that he will have the rest on Monday after he has been down to the country to borrow the money from his father. This is quite plausible because the guy, like a lot of booksellers of the time, appears to be a public school type with a vague air of privilege, albeit slightly shabby, and likely to have moneyed parents. In fact his dad was a teacher with nothing more than a flat in Roehampton and a bicycle.

The bailiff disappears into the gathering gloom and the dealer immediately gets on the blower to his network of dealer friends. The call goes out to the London trade that he will buy any book for 5 pence (10 cents.) Battered Volvos, trucks, vans arrive laden with London's lousiest, most unsaleable books. I recall we sent 500 crap books along (quite handsome tomes but mostly in Finnish) and got £25--in 1977 you could have quite a jolly weekend with sums like this.

By Monday morning the stock has had a blood transfusion and our man has spent £500 and taken all his good books home. The bailiffs duly appear, he gives them his hard luck story and they heartlessly seize all the books in the shop, load them into a Luton, call him a loser and take their booty forthwith to Pecksniffs- where a month later they are sold for a sum in the very low hundreds. By which time our man has decamped, returning after a longish spell in Ibiza to do book fairs and sell by catalogue. The enraged landlord gets a cheque from Pecksniff's --a paltry sum less 25% and later has to foot a £500 bill from the thuggish bailiff. A few years later he is jailed for threatening tenants.

30 years later, no names, no packdrill, our dealer has 60,000 books on the web and most weeks grosses £5000. He has bought his old dad a Mondeo to take him to the bowls club in Roehampton. Never mind the bollocks...

27 June 2008

Tall Tales from the Trade

A bookseller specialist buys a large academic collection from an old professor--mostly sexology, sexual politics, censorship and moral studies. He gets them for a reasonable sum, but part of the deal is that he takes 10,000 porno paperbacks stored in the outhouse. Reluctantly he hauls them all out and takes the paperbacks to the recycling where they are pulped. Pulp to pulp.

Painstakingly he lists the scholarly works and offers them to a University library that he has ties with. They reply that, sadly, they have most of these books and what they really need is actual porn paperback fiction, 'we have all the books on censorship' the librarian says 'what we need is the material that was being censored - we need thousands of them, but I'm afraid we can only pay $20 each.'

I was reminded of this one when reading about David Hockney and his choice of book on Desert Island Discs. It was a gay pulp porno paperback 'Route 69' by Floyd Carter which he was allowed to take to his island along with the Bible and complete works of Shakespeare. There are no copies of Floyd's masterpiece on any web mall and the only works showing by him are Battle of the Bulges , Big Joe, Camp Butch and Forbidden Fruit --mostly on Amazon where they report no copies. These books tend to be rare.

A similar tale is set in 1965 in a provincial bookshop where trade is slow. The dealer has a sale of the books upstairs, lesser books but useful stock--even after severe reductions there are 10,000 books left. Rather than haul them down to the dump he decides to give the whole lot to the young girl who comes in on afternoons when he is out doing house calls, fishing, watching cricket etc., She graciously accepts them and says she will arrange to have them out as soon as possible. He sets off to a local auction and on his return is greatly surprised to find all the books have gone. The girl explains that a guy came in from a movie company needing 10000 books - for the book burning scenes in Fahrenheit 451 that they were filming nearby. She only charged £1 per book.

25 June 2008

An American Prayer. Jim Morrison, 1970

Jim Morrison. AN AMERICAN PRAYER. Privately Printed ( by Western Lithographers in Los Angeles but not stated.) 1970.

Current Selling Prices
$2500-$4000 /£1200-£2000

12mo. 5 inches tall and 4 inches wide in slightly grained burgundy red boards gilt lettered on the cover. Has the appearance of a prayer book. Sometimes described as being bound in leather but believe me, it's faux. The only information printed inside is '© James Douglas Morrison 1970 All Rights Reserved' printed at the bottom of the verso of the blank front endpaper. It has 40 unpaginated pages, 37 printed. This is the first edition that Morrison had printed in 100 copies (?) as described at OCLC / World Cat and conforms with the copy sold at Pacific Book Auctions in 1993 (for $500.) A single visionary poem in Morrison's peak Dionysian style full of incantation-- 'Give us a creed/ To believe/ A night of Lust/ Give us trust in /The Night...'

Sometimes thought to be 500 copies, but it's pretty scarce and OCLC shows only two holdings - at La Jolla (San Diego University) and Berserkly. I incline towards the 100 copies school. We bought a copy from the estate of contemporary American composer Lou Harrison in Aptos, California and it was the only nod towards Rock in the entire collection of books and records. I was told by his acolytes that Lou had considered 'Light my Fire' an inspired work.

VALUE? Our copy was described thus: 'Attractive bright condition with very slight handling wear i.e. very slight marks and a discernible hairline crack at upper spine hinge - overall VG or better. Issued without d/w.' It is a vulnerable little book. We got $2200 for it in 2003 after a month or two on the net and sold it to a high end dealer who attempted to double up. He may have achieved this; Jim Morrison is, was, and always will be, hotter than a 2 dollar pistol.

A reprint was published in Louisiana in 1983/84 that some people want $300 for but is apparently sanitised. The LP and CD have 90% of the uncensored lyrics in a booklet and don't cost much. At a Rock memorabilia sale in London 2005 someone paid £1080 against an estimate of £1000/ £1500, no condition noted. A fabulous signed copy has sat on ABE at $15000 since Blair was our leader (and has now been joined by another.) The earlier seller notes: 'The majority of copies, which were subscribed to, were sent out in mailers bearing the address of the Doors Fan Club, Santa Monica.' This argues quite forcibly against the 100 copies theory because the boys had more than a 100 fans. However the book seldom shows up at all. An enigma. It has been known to show up in Bible stores as it has the deliberate appearance of a little prayer book. Jim was buried in July 1971 at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris not far from Oscar Wilde, Molière, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Proust and, best of all, the assassinated Black Prince who lies serenely on top of his grave. Due to the constant traffic of his fans Jim's grave is a bloody disgrace -as befits a wild rock star.

Outlook? It is likely that history will see Jim as the Baudelaire of rock and he is unlikely to fade away. Danny Sugarman, a sort of Max Brod to Jim's Kafka, says that '...Jim Morrison didn't want to be a god. Jim Morrison wanted to be a poet. Surely, no modern poet has written better of the alienation and feelings of isolation, dread, and disconnectedness ... Jim's dying wish was to be taken seriously as a poet. While he was alive, his behavior blinded many of us to his words. Today his life still fascinates and amazes us, and his work as a poet is finally gaining the recognition it deserves...' This is born out by the 2006 $50000 auction record (the last significant record for Jim material) for a 12 line poem in his hand "...in black ballpoint pen on a sheet of lined paper , circa 1970, the 12 lines on one sheet of lined paper titled 'The American Night' beginning with the first verse 'When radio dark night existed + assumed control + we rocked in it's web consumed by static stroked w fear' and the second verse reading 'we were drawn down / The distance of long cities riding home thru the open night alone launching fever + strange carnage from the back seat.'" These verses are a version of a poem in this little book that I devoutly hope to find again.

21 June 2008

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck. THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Viking Press, New York (1939)

Current Selling Prices
$4000-$10000 /£2000-£5000

Tolstoyan novel with important social content. The book that won Steinbeck the Nobel prize. Basic plot is this - forced from their home in the south by the dust storms (Dust Bowl), the Joads, a family of 'Okies' are lured to California to find work; instead they find disillusionment, exploitation, and hunger. The Oxford Companion to Literature says that '...it articulates a life-affirming 'mystical socialism' and speaks eloquently for the concerns of the deprived and the dispossessed.' It sold nearly half a million copies in its first year of publication, although it had its detractors - Steinbeck was accused of everything from harboring communist sympathies to exaggeration of the conditions in migrant camps. The uproar drew the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who came to Steinbeck's defense, and eventually led to congressional hearings on migrant camp conditions and changes in labour laws.

His wife came up with the title -- from the lyrics of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" ("Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored... ") -- and typed up the manuscript as he wrote in Los Gatos. Los Gatos is now a chic town on the edge of Silicon valley, with about one restaurant for every 100 people and a shopaholics paradise, then it was a merely agricultural town. Both its bookshops are now closed. The one on the top corner of the main drag which was run as late as the 1990s by an old cove with a Jaguar is remembered fondly. Over the hill in populous Salinas (his birthplace) the John Steinbeck Public Libray was faced with extinction in 2005 (no money) but at the last moment the citizens of Salinas voted themselves a sales tax to keep the library and other city services funded for the next ten years. In Monterey , Steinbeck mementoes are everywhere and some of the canneries near the front have become antique markets - with the occasional bookdealer, always with shelves of Steinbeck. He is the California writer, the Beach Boys sang about him... (pace Jack London.)

VALUE? For serious money you need the original color pictorial dust jacket with jacket illustration by Elmer Hader with the $2.75 price and "First Edition" intact on front flap (sometimes called 'tab'.). A book that makes mega bucks with a good signature-in 2007 a copy in a used jacket inscribed to his sister Beth made $47000 ( ''For Beth with love John"). At the Rechler sale in 2002 a copy inscribed to Marshall Best (one of Steinbeck's publishers at The Viking Press) in an unknown jacket made nigh on $40,000. Inscribed copies appear online at $20000, some more, some less. Less, of course for copies that are merely 'flatsigned' - the meathead theory that a plain signature is better than an inscription doesn't work for Steinbeck -or any other writer. Without inscription the book has never made over $9000 in auction. Decent copies online appear to start at $10000 with an avowedly much better than fine copy decribed as 'immaculate in a non-price clipped pristine dust jacket' at $14000. The UK 1939 first edition from Heinemann in its crimson/ purple jacket can make £400 or so it tip-top condition. Outlook? Although Steinbeck is not Tolstoy this is a world classic and a book that will never go away - it should hold it's own through recession and depression.

TRIVIA. In 1917 Boyd Cable wrote a book 'The Grapes of Wrath.' Subtitled 'Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Private Soldier' it consisted of stories from the front in the First World War. Nice copies in jacket can be bought for less than $50. There are several books called 'The Wrath of Grapes' including a rare temperance book and a recent book about the wine trade. There are also wine bars with this name and a reality TV series "Corkscrewed: The Wrath of Grapes" which follows the trials and exploits of American Idol producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick as they make a major investment in a long held dream - owning their own vineyard. A 'must see' -a reality show about reality show people losing part of their wad on wine. Talking of drink it is said that Steinbeck, although fond of a bevy, was the only American writer / Nobel winner (apart from the deathless Pearl Buck, and the much later Saul Bellow) who was not a raging alcoholic. Below is the shack on Greenwood Lane, Los Gatos where he started the book: he finished it in the Santa Cruz mountains. After the book came out he wrote:
“The vilification of me out here from the large landowners and bankers is pretty bad. The latest is a rumor started by them that the Okies hate me and have threatened to kill me for lying about them. I'm frightened at the rolling might of this damned thing, It is completely out of hand ; I mean a kind of hysteria about the book is growing that is not healthy.” 

18 June 2008

The Christmas Cookie Sprinkle Snitcher, 1969.

"I know now that Christmas
is not being greedy.
Christmas is spreading
sprinks to the needy!"

VIP (i.e. Virgil Franklin Partch) THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE SPRINKLE SNITCHER. Windmill Books/Simon and Schuster, New York, 1969.

Current Selling Prices
$300-$600 /£150-£300

An unmistakably American book, fondly remembered by greying boomers and damned hard to find. There is even an appeal at the folksy Cheddar Bay site to get it republished. The big cheese at the site says: "A childhood classic, and a "MUST HAVE" Christmas read!Unfortunately, this children's book now brings staggering prices on the secondary market ... $250-$500 (I'm serious!). If you'd like to see this book re-published (thereby lowering this secondary market rip-off and making an old childhood favorite accessible to ALL), join me in writing to the 1969 original publisher of the book, Simon & Schuster, at the following address:

Mr. Rick Richter, President
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Co.
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020."

VALUE? Not a book that you would think was valuable but when it turns up on ebay bidding is intense and over at abebooks, an ambitious New York outfit, never knowingly oversold, want $1000 for it in a jacket. It can however be picked up for half that by canny buyers and half again by the eagle eyed book scout. The plot is mostly in the title but it concerns the children of a village dreaming of the Christmas cookies their mothers will bake when a rotten (but unambitious) "Snitcher" steals all the cookie sprinkles and everyone is looking for them to decorate Christmas cookies. A little boy (Nat) follows a sprinkle trail to find the sprinkles and teach the snitcher how to share. The snitcher blurts '"I didn't mean to spoil /no one's Christmas fun/ I'm ashamed", sobbed the Snitcher,/"ashamed what I done." '

Part of a valuable vein of children's Christmas literature - The Night Before Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Madeline's Christmas (Bemelmans) Snow Before Christmas (Tasha Tudor) Babar And Father Christmas, Christmas at the Rose and Crown (Alison Uttley) not forgetting A Christmas Carol (with Stave 1, naturally.) Outlook? If Rick Richter listens to the pleas and reprints, it may dip in price for quite a while but the true first of this charming, uncomplicated bedtime story will surely always be wanted.

15 June 2008

The Velveteen Rabbit

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real. It doesn't happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

Margery Williams. THE VELVETEEN RABBIT. Or How Toys become Real. Heinemann, London 1922.

Current Selling Prices
$10000-$16000 /£5000-£8000

A remarkable book and one of the supreme classics of childhood. Although not as well known as, say, 'Little Black Sambo' or 'Winnie the Pooh' a nice jacketed copy of the true British first is worth a lot more than the pair put together. The first is particularly favoured because of its chromolithographic colour illustrations, replaced by cheaper and less luminous colour printing in subsequent editions. They are by the artist William Nicholson and are some of his finest work in a distinguished career - among other things he designed the logo for Heinemann, the book's publishing house.

The key to the book's enduring appeal is hinted at in this contemporary publicity statement from Heinemann about the book -'Nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.' Nursery Magic. The book explains how and why children and adults become attached to their teddy bears and the secret of what is sometimes a lifetime bond - think of Betjeman and his bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore, better known as Archie and a stuffed elephant known as Jumbo - lifelong companions of the poet and in his arms when he died.

The author Margery Williams was born in London in 1881. She moved to the United States when she was nine-years-old and alternated between living in the United States and England for the rest of her life. She is best known for her thirty children's books, but she also wrote novels for adults and young adults. Her most popular works include The Velveteen Rabbit, Poor Cecco: The Wonderful Story of a Wonderful Wooden Dog Who Was the Jolliest Toy in the House Until He Went Out to Explore the World, and The Little Wooden Doll. 'Poor Cecco' is a scarce Rackham illustrated work- at 105 copies the rarest of all his many limited editions (Doran New York 1925, can make £5K.) Nicholson produced many valuable books, the most valuable being the super limited edition of his exquisite 'Alphabet' (30 copies on vellum 1898) which made £22000 18 years ago. The most amusing is his 'Book of Blokes' 1929 which in the limited edition of 50 has an original sketch and can still occasionally be found for less than a £1000 note (image at bottom.). It is a charming and whimsical book, almost abstract in some depictions and and based on a series of chalk drawings in which he tried to complete a portrait without removing the chalk from the paper and with as few lines as possible. Austin Spare had done the same thing in his freakish automatic drawings coming from a completely different artistic and cultural spectrum.

VALUE? At Christmas 2005 in a packed sale at Dominic Winter auctions, a great favourite with provincial dealers, there were gasps when a copy in a less than brilliant jacket ('dusty, rubbed, chipped & torn') made £8600 -with commissions costing the dealer who bought it over £10,000 to get it out of the rooms. Possibly the result of a pissing competition but not unprecedented. There is a copy on the web in nice shape with jacket, but a curious US/ UK edition at a stonking $16,500 that has been there for many months. A London first described as a 'variant' with the front cover only printed in one colour and the Heinemann's vignette missing on spine foot & rear cover blank in a d/j with minor soiling made $15000 at Christie's New York, Dec 9, 1998. A remarkable result and equivalent to about £12000 in today's terms. Outlook? Unlikely to go much over these figures in difficult times but such is the affection and regard in which the book is held that extraordinary prices are still possible.

12 June 2008

Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen, 1899.

Thorstein Veblen. THE THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS. An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions. Macmillan, NY, 1899.

Current Selling Prices
$2500-$5000 /£1200-£2500

A 'sexy' economics book, or at least it was. I 'accidentally discovered' a copy of this in the late 1990s at a high end West Coast bookshop for $100 and I got about £1200 for it. Sadly this doesn't happen every day. At the time it was a 'sleeper' and there were no copies on the net - the dealer had priced it from an auction record of $90; it had however appeared in Quaritch catalogues and economics was, at the time, le dernier cri. It is a regular size octavo in dark green vertical grain cloth lettered gilt at the spine. It doesn't look expensive or rare or important.

Although he produced nine books between 1899 and 1923, Veblen's academic fortunes did not prosper. Veblen (pictured above) had taught at Stanford and in fact they forced him out in 1911; after a somewhat rackety career he died in a shack in woody Menlo Park in 1929. In the iconoclastic 'Leisure Class' he had applied Darwin's evolutionary theories to the study of modern economic life, highlighting the competitive and predatory nature of the business world. With great humour he identified the markers of American social class, and he coined the term "conspicuous consumption" to describe their displays of wealth. A number of Veblen's other basic concepts and insights have become widely accepted in American socio - economic analysis: these include the 'sense of workmanship' 'culture lag' and 'conspicuous waste.' He also said: 'All business sagacity reduces itself in the last analysis to judicious use of sabotage...' the kind of thing Adam Smith might have said if he was less of a gent. Prophetically, Veblen warned specifically against the belief that the engineers are capable of taking over and running the system...

I was reminded of Veblen the other night watching John Travolta being interviewed by Jonathan Ross (not shy himself in material display). Travolta talked modestly of his personal Boeing 707, his 40 strong entourage and his 3 permanent pilots who live nearby his foolishly large house with its own runway and a second jet (possibly a mere Gulfstream.) Veblen had noted that wealth was most conspicuously displayed in a person's middle years. There is a book about the art collector Charles Saatchi ('SuperCollector' by Hatton and Walker / Artology) written along Veblenian lines showing how contemporary art is a perfect vehicle for the display of wealth and how it also also trumps other peoples wealth with its implication of taste and sophistication. Some wag once said that 'collecting modern art is a rich man's way of making poor people feel stupid.'

VALUE? It has made as much as $2800 at auction. It seldom shows up in limpid condition. Heritage, who have a predilection for the book (possibly it resonates in L.A.) have a superior 'fine, fresh' copy at $6000 and apart from a signed copy (which I have never heard of) it cannot get higher than that. Lesser copies are available at between $3000 and $4000. It is not madly scarce and the show may have rolled on in terms of desirability but it is still a wonderful book to find overlooked somewhere. The whole text can be downloaded at Gutenberg Project, reprints are available for a few dollars more but nothing beats owning the book - one of the great titles.

STOP PRESS. I was prompted to revisit this masterpiece when I stumbled upon some pictures of Travolta's house-cum-airport, a stunning demonstration of conspicuous consumption. It was at Testar Logistics. Also I came across this piece about the book in Max Lerner's 'Ideas are Weapons':-
"Into it he poured all the acidulous ideas and fantastic terminology that had been simmering in his mind for years. It was a savage attack upon the business class and their pecuniary values, half concealed behind an elaborate screenwork of irony, mystification and polysyllabic learning"
Currently there are 2 firsts on the web, a modest condition copy at £2500 and a lousy copy at £1300. I always feel that ugly and shabby examples of books should be priced at about a 10th of a very good copy but condition seems to have gone out of the window on the web and 50% or even 75% of decent seems to be the norm. However much you loved the sage of the Stanford woods would you want to pay over a grand sterling for a copy described thus? - "A few library marks, insert removed from rear endpaper. First 2 leaves barely attached. Front inner hinge tender. Green cloth fraying at tips, scuffed. Scattered, light pencil marks mostly to margins. Light spotting to endpapers. Ex-Library." A self respecting French dealer would bin it. The book seems even in these troubled times to be somewhat on the rise, all the copies mentioned above have sold since September 07. The late unlamented Heritage may have taken their copy home, none have been seen in the rooms for 3 years. A limpid copy or a signed one should easily double the prices up top.

10 June 2008

House Calls 5

Some further notes ... By the way 'The Price ' a 1967 play by Arthur Miller is the only literary depiction of a house call in action that comes to mind- although it concerns a furniture dealer rather than book dealer. The dealer is called Solomon, an incredibly aged, incredibly wise antiques dealer, who has come, almost out of retirement ("You must have looked up my name in a very old telephone book"), to give a price for the furniture in the attic of a once prosperous Manhattan brownstone. Rather in the line of Ibsen and one of Miller's best plays... (image below with the aptly named Trader Faulkner as Solomon.)

The dealer would be advised to arrive at the appointed hour, clean and, if possible, sober. He or she would be advised to avoid lunchtime as they may be asked to eat a meal which can establish a bond that makes it harder to turn the books down flat when they are poor stuff, which, sadly, is often the case. This bond could work in your favour - especially if the books are great and you are possessed of basic social skills and decency. However if you are anything like me the first thing you would want to do is look at the books and find treasures. Not a good idea to bring price guides as they can be seized by the seller and through misinterpretation be used against you. The best bet these days is to bring a cellphone and if stumped for prices or edition points etc., to "phone a friend" - hopefully one hooked up to the web and services such as ViaLibra.com, abebooks and ABPC.

When making an offer it is best to announce it confidently. As a very general rule of thumb it should represent about 40 to 60% of what you might eventually hope to realise for the books depending on their quality and how fast they will sell. It is worth leaving a little 'wiggle room' as sellers often like to drive a price up. Honesty is, of course, the best policy and a dealer who immediately doubles his offer on rejection or increases it dramatically is likely to reveal himself as a swine and a blackguard. In the case of lower price books where it takes longer to get a return a third or a quarter or less might be appropriate. It is generally best if possible to 'pick' and not be lumbered with undesirable books. Try to leave behind the 'dogs' and if forced to take the lot back out unless its really worth it, nowadays too much crap is a terrible burden. If you have to outbid some other dealer do not be afraid to ask what has been offered (half the time people will tell you) if it is too much do not top their offer but make a dignified exit and express an interest at a lower price if the deal with the other guy (possibly some extravagant, fly by night chancer or even a general clearance dealer ignorant of book values) falls through - and they often do. If you find you have (mentally) grossly exceeded the offer of another it is often worth looking at the books again in case you have overrated something (and vice versa.). Don't think because the seller seems to like you that they won't sell to another. Do not worry if you don't get the books--the world is full of them.

Take boxes and be aware of access. A load of quite good books on the sixth floor of a flat without a lift can become a real effort. We once cleared such a flat (8th floor Shepherd's Bush, no lift) and found it worthwhile to employ a chain of muscular students to pass the stuff down the steep steps. A friend in the Channel Islands recalls clearing a mansion on the tiny island of Brecqou ( or was it Jethou or Lihou? ) where the books had to be hauled down the cliff by ropes onto a bobbing boat and sailed back to Guernsey. To be continued with tales of dealers clearing books in sacks, notes on common mistakes and misconceptions, exaggeration of book quantities and the 'pro rata problem.'

'Bookman' shelf above by East Anglian artist Kazmierz Szmauz.

08 June 2008

Failiure Press, 1973 -1975? (Stephen Fry) 2

The solution to the clue 'the way someone uneducated smokes a cigar nonchalantly' (7 letters) is, of course, ABANDON. It was once considered vulgar or common to smoke a cigar with the band on, as it demonstrated how much you had paid for the cigar, an ungentlemanly thing. Hardened gamesters might get to that eventually but how about this? 'The Monroe Doctrine has bonus queen involved.' Solution = SARKI (H.H. Munro was Saki, add an R for Queen, duhhh.) Somewhat easier and with the Fry touch is 'Prep-schoolboys' bedroom has insects at one end - and yet they sleep! (7 letters.) Answer below.

Also elementary is 19 across 'Dial for Art' (DALI). He was very fond of anagrams and especially hard hidden ones-- try this - 'A short established rape: he likes a malenky malchick.' The answer, which doesn't exactly come like clockwork, is PEDERAST. The great Baron Corvo is honoured in this clue- 'the great man himself - with a bar on' (5 letters). An early love of wordplay is demonstrated in this marvellous clue - 'Take a sou from something wonderful and you get something metaphysical (7 letters). Answer below. A great writer that Fry was to play in a major motion picture is evoked in this clue ''The lady of the lake made hers famous, anyone keen on the popular Aestheticist' (2,5,5,3) Answer below.

I noted that this magazine 'The Failiure Press' has at its mast on the first issues 'incorporating Rat's Alley' and also freakishly 'incorporating Rat His Alley.' Presumably these were earlier emanations from the King's Lynn Corvines and echo the lines in The Waste Land -'I think we are in rat's alley, / Where the dead men lost their bones'. Google knows it not - but it will now.

Answers-- Dormant / Marvell /An Oscar Wilde Fan.

04 June 2008

The Failiure Press, 1973 -1975? (Stephen Fry)

It was in King’s Lynn that I swam into the orbit of a most extraordinary circle of intellectuals who met regularly in the bar of a small hotel and discussed avidly the works of Frederick Rolfe, the infamous Baron Corvo. The very fact that I had heard of him made me welcome in the circle. These men and women, who were led by a bespectacled fellow called Chris and a glamorously half-French Baron called Paul, held regular Paradox Parties. Instead of a pass¬word or a bottle, the only way to gain entry to such a party was to offer at the door a completely original paradox. Paul, whose father was the French honorary consul (for King’s Lynn is a port), could play the piano excellently, specialising in outré composers like Alkan and Sorabji, although he was also capable of delighting me with Wolf and Schubert Lieder. He was planning, like Corvo, to become a Roman priest. Also like Corvo, he failed in his attempt, unlike Corvo however he did not descend into bitterness and resentment but became finally an Anglican priest, which suited him better, despite his ancestry... This group regularly produced a magazine called The Failiure Press (the spelling is deliberate) to which I contributed a regular crossword. A deal of The Failiure Press was written in the New Model Alphabet, which would take up far too much space for me to explain, but which nearly always looked like this ‘phaij phajboo ajbo jjjbo’ and took a great deal of deciphering to the initiated. In its early days it was light-hearted, occasionally amusing, and always self-consciously intellectual. ..In a town like King’s Lynn, such spirits were rare and it was amongst this group that I found my temporary best friend, and indeed first and only real girlfriend...For my sixteenth birthday she gave me a beautiful green and gold 1945 edition of Oscar Wilde’s Intentions, which I have to this day, and a damned good fuck, the memory of which is also with me still. STEPHEN FRY / 'Moab is my Washpot'.

THE FAILIURE PRESS. Privately Printed, King's Lynn 1973 +

I remember reading about the Failiure Press in 'Moab is my Washpot' and making a note to look out for these elusive ephemeroids. Recently I found 4 issues, 2 of which had crosswords by the 16 year old Fry, who by the evidence of his clues was already a prodigy and a polymath. Unless he contributed to some school mag at Uppingham this represents his first work in print--what the bibliographers call B1. The second issue has his first crossword and the third issue has the solutions and the second crossword. I have the first issue, fascinating but Fry free, the above two and an odd issue from April 1975. Stephen Fry writes that the magazine went on well after his brief involvement and '...plunged into a weird libertarian frenzy of polemical anti-Semitism, gall and bitterness: the title had ever been a hostage to fortune or self-fulfilling prophecy. In its early days it was light-hearted, occasionally amusing, and always self-consciously intellectual.'

It is certainly a very odd mag full of jokes, parodies, reviews of King's Lynn pubs, fake letters from Evelyn Waugh, Brian Aldiss etc. Baron Corvo is at the heart of it and there are genuine letters from intellectual priests like Brocard Sewell (taking issue with Donald Weeks) and the concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houdedard. There are poems and limericks in the New Model Alphabet, a crazed system reducing the alphabet to 13 letters to represent the 13 persons at the Last Supper - A B G H J K O P R S T and numbers 1 AND 5. Its problem seems to be that unless you are reading something you have just written you are unlikely to be able to decipher it. It is attributed to Viscount Luthor and in the issues I have New Model Alphabet writings probably represents less than 10% of the content. Corvo is 20% +--these were the times when Corvomania swept the cities and the fens. There is much whimsy and esoterica. The editorial in the first issue laments the lack of experimental or adventurous writing in current magazines like OZ and I.T. ('stylistic bankruptcy and bop mediocrity') and declares--
"...We will be as idiosyncratic, as paraliterary, as corvological, as quite other than uniform, and as quintessentially informed as we can and please. As usual, we are quite serious. Schopenhauer said: He who writes for fools will find a large audience; we will not underestimate ours!"
There follows a spoof message from Pope Paul VI at Castelgandolfo granting the readers of the magazine a plenary indulgence at the hour of death. To be continued with an examination of Stephen F's damnably difficult and surreal crosswords. Try this (7 letters) 'the way someone uneducated smokes a cigar nonchalantly.' Answer tomorrow or soonish..