15 December 2008

Tales of the Uncollected...

Recently I was honoured to be interview by book maven R.M. Healey from Rare Book Review...here are some highlights and a few notes. Some of the stuff has already been covered in Bookride but what the hell...It took place in our shop shown below; forgive the shameless self promotion!


When it comes to rumours of ghosts, unicorns and sleepers in the bookworld, only one man can provide the answers. R M Healey speaks to Nigel Burwood about the ones that got away- and the ones that never existed at all.

His Bookride website is already required reading... and his Any Amount of Books shop on Charing Cross Road has one of the few genuine bargain basements known to me. Nigel Burwood, therefore, seemed the ideal person to chat about the elusive, ultra-rare, and possibly non-existent titles that continue to evade dealers and fascinate collectors alike.
I was delighted to be invited down to his cubbyhole of an office, where the rumblings of trains on the Northern Line a few metres below can be heard quite distinctly. Appropriately enough, given these strange sounds and the darkness that lay beneath us, we began talking about ghosts. Apparently these are books that possibly don't exist, despite being announced in magazines or catalogues, or mentioned on the jackets of other books by the same author, and my host had obviously prepared mentally for the interview because he mentions my name.
'Et Tu Healy, supposedly by James Joyce, is one of the most notorious,' he declares. 'No one has ever seen a copy, which suggests it never existed in any form, or was destroyed or lost.'
A more modern example then springs to mind. 'I was at a Salman Rushdie signing in the States recently, and he revealed that when he was young his father had printed several copies of an early work of his- a piece of juvenilia- and he had boasted that he owned several examples of his son's earliest printed work. But he had never actually dug them out to show Salman, and when he died no one looking through his possessions could find them.'


I believe that like Rushdie, a number of authors have these Et Tu Healy skeletons in their closet- tantalising objects of desire that may exist in a modest form, perhaps as a pamphlet or even a 'unicorn', in other words, a book of which only one copy was ever printed. Not only does Burwood agree, but he proves extremely knowledgeable on the subject.
'Take the poet George Barker and the erotic writer Anais Nin,' he says. 'These and a whole lot of other people were co-opted by a millionaire collector and erotologist to write rude books for him, which he then published in a handful of copies. Barker told me about "his rarest book" which he'd never actually seen, but which he was sure existed somewhere.'
The rarest work of Aleister Crowley, Aceldama among them, are now the province of rich collectors, like Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.
'If you find them it's retirement money,' Burwood says, 'but no bookseller could base a career on tracking down these books because they only turn up once in a few years, if you're very lucky. In fact the way you make money in this game is to sell a lot of books that you see all the time.
'Snowdrops from a Curate's Garden is one of the rarest Crowleys. This is shocking porn written to amuse his wife on their honeymoon, or something like that. It's way over the top erotica and it's rare, very rare. According to the title page it's by the Reverend Deary*, or some such name. White Stains is another in the same vein, but not so rare.'
A book's scarceness can be more important than its author's name.
'I remember having a book of skiffle poetry which proclaimed it was "one of only five copies"- you see such pronouncements all over the internet,' Burwood says. 'I catalogued it for £45. It was by nobody, but I managed to sell it because t was from the Age of Skiffle. The subject matter and rarity was what sold it, not the author. Conversely, some of those little 'butterfly' books supposedly by Auden and others, but actually forged by the American poet and critic Dr Frederic Prokosch, were issued in editions of five or so, but now fetch a few grand each.'
Incredible rarity- even uniqueness- by itself is not enough, however. 'I'm offering on the web an example of a unicorn*,' Burwood admits. 'It's by Roy Notley, who was probably some sort of wag from the 50s who wore a beatnik jersey down to his knees and recited his own poetry in the local milk bar. Someone straight out of Tony Hancock. He probably produced this one copy to impress a girl he fancied. I only want £40 for this unique, slim, hardback but there's no interest. If you could tie it into the beatnik era it would be saleable, but I don't think it has even that virtue. It might take a hundred years to sell.'
Occasionally books that don't exist can be in greater demand than books that do. A common haunt of the unicorn is the film industry, where a book is mocked up by the prop department for a particular scene. Burwood, of course, has examples at his fingertips.
'In a movie called The Edge, Anthony Hopkins is shown reading How to Survive in the Woods, and I've been deluged with requests for it.' he says. 'Some have even claimed that they've read it! But it doesn't exist. In ...Sex and the City, a character is shown reading a book,' he says. 'Obviously, the book doesn't actually exist and yet people email me begging me to find a copy.' Burwood wasn't the only person deluged with requests. In fact, demand was so great for the book Love Letters of Great Men that several mainstream publishers rushed to release titles under that name.


Technically, the one-off film creations are both unicorns and ghosts- advertised but never printed. On the subject of the latter, I'm delighted to learn that some of the titles in Bizarre Books...one of the funniest books ever published- are ghosts too. 'There's a guy in San Francisco who swears he found a book called The Romance of Proctology, but I don't believe this exists,' Burwood says.
Books by madmen or cranks, however, is a growth area and well served by Bizarre Books.
'Martin Stone once reckoned he found a book which contended that some pub in Berkshire called The Old Bull and Bush, or something, was the Centre of The Universe,' Burwood laughs. 'This wasn't a joke. The bloke was convinced about it.'
Then there is Crook Frightfulness. This was published in Birmingham under the pseudonym 'A Victim' in 1932. 'The author's account of hearing imaginary voices of "crooks" that meant him harm sounds ludicrous to us, but the writer was a bit of a sad case- undoubtedly a paranoiac,' Burwood says. 'Today he'd be given a pill and told to go away. A jacketed copy is on the web for £400. I got £100 for mine. It's part of a literature of abnormal mental states, which is quite collectible today. Even big players, like Maggs have asked me if I've got any books by madmen. It's very sexy, you might say.'

*NOTES. 'Unicorn' is a charming mistake that crept in--the word should be UNICUM. It is hardly ever used because you seldom see them (just like unicorns!). The actual pseudonym used by the Great Beast was Reverend C. Verey. It's a slim book of verse and I need it for a customer if you spot one. More to follow...


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for all of the useful information and entertainment you provide in your blog posts. I'm new enough at antiquarian bookselling to realize I have a lot more to learn. Your site is one of a handful whose information is well-presented and helpful.

Anonymous said...

Unicum is a Hungarian herbal bitters, drunk as a digestif and apéritif. Unlike most of your books, although unique, it exists,

According to legend, the drink was initially presented by an ancestor of Zwack founder József Zwack to Kaiser Joseph II of Austria, who proclaimed "Das ist ein Unikum!" ("This is unique!"). The liqueur is today produced by Zwack according to a secret formula including more than 40 herbs and aged in oak casks. During the cheating Communist regime in Hungary, Unicum was produced by a different formula. After the fall of communism, Péter Zwack returned to Hungary and resumed the production of the original Unicum.

Doug Sharp said...

The Romance of Proctology

McBlogget said...

Similar to the film-ghost book, there was once a radio-ghost book. Jean Shepherd, a radio host in the 1950s, created a hoax about a book called I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing. The book didn't exist but sufficient demand was created such that Ballantine Books commissioned the book to be written by Shepherd and Theodore Sturgeon. It has some collectible value.