28 February 2009

Zang Tumb Tuuum! (1914)

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. ZANG TUMB TUUM (Adrianopoli, Ottobre 1912 : Parole in Libertà.) Poesia, Milan, 1914.

Current Selling Prices
$3000+ /£2000+

The kind of book you could theoretically find in the foreign language section of a doltish bookseller ignorant of modern art, poetry and European literature - plenty of chaps like that + the book is not on the net. This might trigger some sort of high pricing response and they might go for something extravagant like $375, a fairly typical bookseller's price for a book that is 'not on net.' Of course it's a marvellous piece of work by the great Italian futurist (alright he was a bit of a fascist) and remarkable for 1914. At 225 pages it is not a pamphlet but not a fat book. The BM lists two sizes 19cms tall and 28 cms tall.

The book had appeared in excerpts in journals between 1912 and 1914 and is one of the very first manifestations of the modernist avant-garde, well before the Cabaret Voltaire bunch launched DADA in 1916 and even the Vorticists and their fabulous puce BLAST manifesto (1914.) In FUTURISM by Caroline Tisdall & Angelo Bozzolla (T & H 1977) they say this of it:-
"[The] masterpiece of Words-in-freedom and of Marinetti’s literary career was the novel ‘Zang Tumb Tuuum’... the story of the siege by the Bulgarians of Turkish Adrianople in the Balkan War, which Marinetti had witnessed as a war reporter. The dynamic rhythms and onomatopoetic possibilities that the new form offered were made even more effective through the revolutionary use of different typefaces, forms and graphic arrangements and sizes that became a distinctive part of Futurism. In ‘Zang Tumb Tuuum; they are used to express an extraordinary range of different moods and speeds, quite apart from the noise and chaos of battle.... Audiences in London, Berlin and Rome alike were bowled over by the tongue-twisting vitality with which Marinetti declaimed ‘Zang Tumb Tuuum.’ As an extended sound poem it stands as one of the monuments of experimental literature, its telegraphic barrage of nouns, colours, exclamations and directions pouring out in the screeching of trains, the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire, and the clatter of telegraphic messages"
OUTLOOK/VALUE? Futurism was in the doldrums for a while but recent records show some highish prices. An inscribed 'Zang Tumb' in slightly shabby shape made £2600 at Bloomsbury last May, a better inscribed copy sold in 1993 also at Bloomsbury (to a dealer called Gidal) for a paltry £250. Before that the Tate Gallery bought a copy for £65 just 30 years ago (also inscribed-- Marinetti was a great signer.) Meanwhile the chef d'oeuvre of Futurism, albeit after the event (1932) 'Parole in Liberta Futuriste Olfattive Tattili Termiche' sometimes known as 'the tin book' (see below) made $70,000 in 1993 and the BM bought a copy this year for a generous £83000. It consist of 15 thin metal sheets in various colors and will be on display. This price was paid to another institution and rather like collector-to -collector sales may have been toppish especially in these times. 25 years ago it sold for £4000- a sound investment.

Marinetti's 'La Cucina Futurista' (also 1932) is not without interest -full of outlandish ingredients and bizarre combinations. He even dared to attack pasta - he insisted that it induced 'fiacchezza, pessimismo, inattività nostalgica e neutralismo' ('lethargy, pessimism, nostalgic inactivity, and neutralism'). This anti - pasta cookbook might also be found in our imaginary doltish bookshop in the cookery section for $10 but it can make $1000 + for smart copies. I have a customer for one...

25 February 2009

Sheridan Le Fanu - the 'Invisible Prince.'

Idly reading Colin Wilson's "The Strength to Dream' this morning I came across his piece on Sheridan Le Fanu. Talking of dreams, I have long dreamed of finding one of his 3 deckers, the nearest I have got to this recently was finding in an island bookshop, practically mint, a first of his posthumous 'Evil Guest' which, when I got it home, sold like a bullet for a monkey (£500).

Some of his 3 deckers can go for the price of a new (and loaded) Lexus. Colin writes that Le Fanu is the only great writer of the supernatural that the UK has ever produced and that his 'Green Tea' is the most convincing ghost story ever written. The curious thing is that Le Fanu actually collected ghost stories himself. I fantasise that somehow the collection stayed together and is to be found in a huge trunk, unclaimed in a Dublin furniture repository. One day, a mere 136 years after its owners demise, they open it, check on Google and email me that it needs shifting a-sap 'for a fair and reasonable price.' Madness.

The great Colin writes that Le Fanu '... spent the day indoors, emerging in the late afternoon to wander round second hand bookshops. looking for ghost stories...' The basis of this is most likely to be A.P. Graves 'A Memoir of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.' Graves wrote that after Le Fanu's beloved wife's death he entirely vanished from Dublin society -
'... so entirely that Dublin, always ready with a nickname, dubbed him ‘The Invisible Prince;’ and indeed he was for long almost invisible, except to his family and most familiar friends, unless at odd hours of the evening, when he might occasionally be seen stealing, like the ghost of his former self, between his newspaper office and his home in Merrion Square; sometimes, too, he was to be encountered in an old out-of-the-way bookshop poring over some rare black letter Astrology or Demonology.

To one of these old bookshops he was at one time a pretty frequent visitor, and the bookseller relates how he used to come in and ask with his peculiarly pleasant voice and smile, ‘Any more ghost stories for me, Mr. ——-?’ and how, on a fresh one being handed to him, he would seldom leave the shop until he had looked it through. This taste for the supernatural seems to have grown upon him after his wife’s death, and influenced him so deeply that, had he not been possessed of a deal of shrewd common sense, there might have been danger of his embracing some of the visionary doctrines in which he was so learned. But no! even Spiritualism, to which not a few of his brother novelists succumbed, whilst affording congenial material for our artist of the superhuman to work upon, did not escape his severest satire...'

J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814 - 1873) died after completing his last novel, strangely bearing the title ‘Willing to Die.’ You might say that in his later years (wait for it) - 'he haunted second hand bookshops...'

24 February 2009

Baedeker Madeira 1939.

'Representatives of most of the hotels come on board and will (for a fee) see to the landing of the luggage. The custom house is near the Cais and the officials are normally very lenient to tourists. Passengers who have not booked rooms should send their luggage to the custom house, land and choose their hotel, and instruct the hotel porter to collect their luggage...*Reid's an hotel de luxe situated on a basalt cliff and commanding fine views, with restaurant (dancing), tennis courts, bathing place and small swimming pool (lift) R 155, L 8, D 10...' (landing at Madeira)

Karl Baedeker. MADEIRA, CANARY ISLANDS, AZORES , WESTERN MOROCCO. Karl Baedeker, Publisher, Leipzig. 1939.

Current Selling Prices
$1200+ /£800+

A wonderful book to find. Not to be confused with the 1934 German language edition which is still valuable but relatively common. The clue is it doesn't look like the familiar blood red soft cloth fat little handbooks, more like a small slim paperback - but the cover is the same shade of red. It is worth so much you could actually pack it in a case and set off to Madeira with it, even take in the lost isles of Atlantis (o/w known as the Azores.) Sell it on return to finance the trip.

I used an old Baedeker in Venice a few years back and not much had changed. For many parts of the world, however, they represent life when, as Waugh put it, 'the going was good.' Looking at KB's Madeira there would now be a greater emphasis on the now highly touristed Canary Islands. Fuerteventura gets you half a page ('most of the island is rough pasture and is grazed mostly by camels') and in Lanzarote, often known as Lanzagrotty, camels abound, a decent white wine is produced and motor cars may be hired to get to Yaiza, where a guide will take you in 3-4 hours to the top of the Montanas del Fuego. That's about it. Things had changed when in this century the unhinged genius Houellebecq wrote of his holiday on the volcanic isle - basically a Rioja fuelled shag-quest. The lovely Canary sland of Gomera, where natives still communicated with 'the old whistling language', ( Silbo) is described as mainly agricultural. Only in the last decade have they put in an airport.

Our copy is catalogued thus:
'...Small 8vo. pp xx, 128. 17 maps, 6 town plans. Original publisher's red illustrated thin card wraps with lighter red linen spine. Sound vg copy with slight handling wear ... Very decent acceptable example of the very rare (some say the rarest) Baedeker. Most copies were said to have been destroyed on a bombing raid on Leipzig in 1945, a few got to the Baedeker's London agents Allen and Unwin and a few to Scribner's in New York just before the war.' £1100.'
The only other time I have had this book was when we cleared 10,000 books from the offices of Allen and Unwin. There were two. We came out top in a 'private treaty' sale organised by Sotheby's. Publisher's file copies are the holy grail although in the case of A & U they kept back all the books of their star author and cash cow JRR Tolkien (also Arthur Waley and Bertrand Russell.)

VALUE? In an piece in the New Yorker 20 years ago they wrote - '... Bernard J. Shapero, the London rare-book dealer, published a Baedeker catalogue in 1989 ...it quoted the rarest Baedeker as "Madeira, Canary Islands, Azores & Western Morocco" (1939) at $:600, followed by "St. Petersburg & Um gebung" (1913) $:500, "Indien" (1914) $:450 and "Russia With Tehran, Port Arthur & Peking" (1914) $:450.' This is still pretty much the case. There are many copies of 'Indien' still available (at a price) a few St Petesburgs and a dozen Russia with Tehran but only two Madeiras -one at £1750. Look out also for 'Lunar Baedeker' by Mina Loy, a modernist poetry work published in Paris by Contact Press, 1923 and worth as much as any red Baedeker. Worth a detour.

OUTLOOK. Probably healthier than most, Baedekers are not really tied to the book market and are collected across the board and in many countries and in several languages. As late as 2005 a man touted a box full of clean Baedekers around the Bay Area looking for buyers, he found none until he got to Moe's - take heart, they can go unnoticed.

22 February 2009

A Book Collection in Hampstead

I have bought quite a few vanfuls of books in Hampstead this century and was intrigued by a piece in a bookseller's memoir entitled "Some Priceless Books In Hampstead". This was from "40 Years in my Bookshop" by Walter C. Spencer (London 1923). Spencer whose dates were possibly 1860-1952 (unknown to Wikipedia, Google, etc.) was a major book seller of his time, a friend of Thomas J. Wise, but at the time of writing presumably ignorant of his darker side (we're talking forgery.) His shop was at 27 New Oxford and he dealt in prints, plate books, bound sets, the Romantics, Americana, first editions of his time (Wilde, Conrad, Galsworthy, etc.). A big Dickens man, popular with visiting American plutocrats like pickle king Henry J. Heinz and numbering among his customers, Sir Henry Irving, Gladstone, George Meredith, Andrew Lang, Gissing, Pater, Swinburne, and Richard Jefferies.

Spencer visited the library of Wise in Hampstead and quotes from Richard Curle's introduction to the catalogue of the Ashley Library - as Wise like to call his ridiculously valuable collection. The catalogue ran to 11 volumes, Wise was exposed as a forger of rare pamphlets in 1934 by biblio sleuths Carter and Pollard. The books went to the British Museum in 1937. Curle, something of a gun for hire in the rare book world, was also the author of several good travel books and works on Conrad who he knew well. He writes:

It seems invidious to pick out for special note any particular books, and yet I cannot forbear to draw attention to certain things of singular rarity and interest in the following short but representative list. 'Welth and Helth,' 1557 (only one other copy known), 'Gammer Gurton's Needle,' 1575 (the earliest English comedy of which any perfect copy is extant), Spenser's 'Faerie Queen,' 1590-6, Nashe's 'Terrors of the Night,' 1594 (only one other copy known, and that a poor one), Lyly's 'Woman in the Moone,' 1597 (only two or three copies known), Dekker's 'Satiro-Mastix,' 1602, Ben Jonson's 'Sejanus,' 1605 (only one other known on large paper : this is a presentation copy), Middleton's 'Roaring Girl,' 1611, Chapman's 'Widdowe's Teares,' 1612, Milton's 'Comus,' 1637 (the finest copy known), Herrick's 'Hesperieds,' 1648 . . . Blake's ' The Gates of Paradise,' 1793 (the only large paper copy known), Byron's 'Fugitive Pieces,' 1806 (one of three known perfect copies), Landor's 'Idyllia,' 1815, Lamb's six separate 'Tales from Shakespeare,' 1807-11 (of none of these booklets are more than two other copies known), Shelley's 'Necessity of Atheism,' 1811 (one other perfect copy known and with a presentation inscription)...."
[Spencer writes] I suspect that a list like the foregoing would take some equalling, but what if we add to it a dozen books, of which Mr. Wise possesses the only known copies in existence ?
"Prior's "Pindarique on His Majesty's Birthday," 1690, Pope's "God's Revenge against Punning," 1716, Gay's "To a Lady on her Passion for Old China," 1725, Landor's "Iambi," 1800, and his "Letters by Calvus," 1814, Coleridge's "Remarks on Sir Robert Peele's Bill," 1818, Byron's " The Irish Avatar," 1821, Fitzgerald's "Translations into Verse," 1829, Tennyson's "The Birth of Arthur," 1868, D. G. Rossetti's "The Streams Secret," 1870, and Swinburne's "Russia, an Ode," 1890.
Mr. Wise's set of Joseph Conrad's publications is a series of gifts from the author, wtih a signed explanatory note on the blank fly-leaf by Mr. Conrad himself...

And so it goes on, pure biblio porn. I suspect some of the latter one-only-known books may have been Wise's own forgeries. The only modern books that I can think of that would trump the above are Ian Fleming's first book-- a slim volume of verse that he rigorously suppressed or Waugh's The World to Come: A Poem in Three Cantos, privately printed 1916 or Corvo's The Attack on St Winefride's Well (only 2 known). Can Hampstead still provide great treasures? As Cadillac Jack would have it : 'Anything can be anywhere.' I have heard that many of the bigger houses are now owned by Russian oligarchs, not known for their literary taste. Times have changed. In the 60s Hampstead was the haunt of cranks, vegetarians and well heeled leftists. Just over 60 years ago a decrepit and malodorous Aleister Crowley could be seen walking down Rosslyn Hill - one of our customers used to see him there when he lived in Hampstead as a teen.

19 February 2009

French Bibliomaniacs (CBS Sunday Morning)

Well worth a watch. One wonders whether the Great Gatsby than John Baxter holds to camera is the real thing, if it is he can take a couple of years off - it was mint. This CBS six minuter also has Martin Stone -a legend in his own lunchtime - and various bouquinistes , wheelers and dealers and some good stuff on French pulps and series noirs........by the way --that's Martin on the left in characteristic pose... amor librorum nos unit...

18 February 2009

Booksellers and the Big Crunch

Having just done the California Book Fair I should be in a position to pontificate about the effect of the crunch on trade. Surprisingly it was fairly reasonable with dealers still buying from one another, something I had feared might be completely curtailed; even the public showed some enthusiasm and produced cash, cards and cheques. True, everybody wanted deeper discounts than ever, anything that was ambitiously priced was ignored unless it was God's own copy, breathtakingly desirable, ballsachingly trendy or in effulgent condition.

Some higher end dealers sold very little but there were also reports of a few very high takes. Ephemera seemed to be doing well, prints less so. Some optimists said during the last recession that the book trade was the last to be affected and the first to recover; this time there have been signs that the more modest and user friendly end of the trade is weathering the storm or even profiting by it. The jury is still out but meanwhile here are some interesting but contradictory lead indicators, straws in the wind (no green shoots though!)...

1. Advert in 'Private Eye' 23 January 2009. "The Eye' is a UK satirical, whistleblowing fortnightly with a large and affluent readership. I found this in the 'Eye Needs' classified ads section which is full of the broke, the needy and the redundant looking for donations. Please help an antiquarian bookshop survive credit crunch 119100 01057770. The figures are bank account details in case you are minded to pony up. Not a good sign at all...

2. Thrift shops (charity shops) are reporting higher turnovers-- as much as 10% over last year. Given the fact that in the UK many charity shops charge more for their books than secondhand shops this is a hard one to interpret, but at least the money is going to good causes and is not being wasted by booksellers on Volvos, Real Ale, fine wines, single malts, bibliography, corduroy jackets and Apples etc.,

3. Article in 'The Daily Telegraph' 10 January 2009 - Frugal readers give second-hand bookshops a lift. The thrust of the article was that booksellers had a bumper year in 2008 'as cost-conscious readers cut back on buying new titles.' One shop, Barter Books in Northumberland, reported a 10% rise and Richard Booth in Hay reports an 'excellent year.' (One caveat to bear in mind is that turnover in second hand bookshops very much depends on the quality of books bought; I know of a seller who took £40K in 2007 and £150K in 2008 because he hit a stunning collection in his area, if the economy had been more buoyant he could have taken more.) Booth even supplies a slightly risible list of the Top Ten Used Books:

1. Kilvert's Diary 1870-1879, by Francis Kilvert
2. On the Black Hill, by Bruce Chatwin
3. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
4. Self-Sufficiency, by John Seymour
5. The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
6. The Famous Five, by Enid Blyton
7. The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest
8. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
9. Food for Free, by Richard Mabey
10. On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Given the randomness of book buying by dealers such lists are going to be site specific, subjective and highly unreliable but they may have some significance. King Richard's list has a Welsh bias. Our top seller is '84 Charing Cross Road', when we can get copies (£1 offered for clean examples.) At the bottom I append US giant Powell's 'Top Ten Used Books' ** list which reflects more American concerns. A spokesperson at Booth's said "We are having a great year. Despite the downturn, sales are up significantly. There are a number of factors. We are selling a lot more on the internet, and I think people are wanting to save money. They are probably not buying new books so much so they are turning to second-hand books instead." Good, encouraging stuff but alot of this info comes from earlier in 2008 before the recession really started to bite... to be continued with other factoids and news of one seaside shop where they are taking money hand over fist...

1. James Bond: The Legacy by John Cork and Bruce Scivally
2. The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Artie Bucco

3. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
4. A People's History of United States by Howard Zinn 

5. Emily Post's Etiquette by Emily Post

6. Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette by Peggy Post

7. Leadership by Rudolph W. Giuliani 

8. Larousse Gastronomique: The World's Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia by Librarie Larousse

9. When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden by Bill Maher 

10. What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke and Marlene Parrish

16 February 2009

On Collecting Books by Tramps 2

Second and final part of a guest blog by R.M. Healey. No puns about 'came to greeff' by the way, and God Bless the King of Hay for giving the man a square meal. Take it away Robin....

The Canadian Paul Potts is linked to Gawsworth in some people's eyes. Both slept alfresco, though Potts was a lot shabbier and smellier. Friends used to speak of the Potts stink , which accompanied him wherever he went. Of his three or so books Dante Called You Beatrice, which I have mentally subtitled ' the longest whinge in literary history ' ( OK, perhaps Hazlitt's Liber Amoris is another contender ) is the best known. The dozen copies of the very common Readers Union edition in ABE all fetch around £3, but some joker has priced his at £14. Instead of a Sonnet is more difficult to find and a signed copy for £39 in ABE is probably worth a punt.

Both Potts and Gawsworth came to mind quite recently when I thought I spied another homeless writer examining some of the bargain book tables in Cecil Court. I wish I’d hailed him, but I wasn’t sure, and to save possible embarrassment walked away. Francois Greeff was someone I’d interviewed three years before for Mensa Magazine,but for some reason the editor had spiked the piece. But Greeff is an interesting character. After leaving South Africa, where he’d witnessed a close relative being shot in fron of him, he’d escaped for his own physical and mental health to England and after years of living rough ( often is his car ) from Cornwall to Bournemouth, but mainly in London, he finally settled down and started a course at Kingston University, which is where I interviewed him.

If homeless Colin Wilson wrote some of his The Outsider in libraries Greeff preferred the various day centres for the homeless dotted around London. Here, he would grab his chance to tap out his first book , The Hidden Code of Cryptic Crosswords, on the house computer,saving the data onto a floppy. He would then seek out a sleeping place. He shared Wilson’s liking for Hampstead Heath.

Problems with the computers in the different day centres drove Greeff ‘scatty’. But at length the book was complete and not long afterwards Foulsham brought it out. Greeff then borrowed twelve pounds to set up a website to promote his magnum opus and the praise he receive from grateful readers prompted him to travel to Hay to sell his book at the Festival. It was while he was sleeping under a fir tree near the town's electricity sub station that he met someone who introduced him to ‘ King ‘ Richard Booth, who invited him to dinner.

You can buy a copy of Greeff's debut paperback for a mere $1 on ABE, but the same site has another at $27.78. (Copies on Amazon UK at 1 penny but also at a stratospheric £111 with Galaxy Books. Ed.) A one hit wonder ? . Well perhaps, but my money is on Greeff writing his memoirs, which should be as racy and as embitterd as Potts '. So what that his debut volume was a book on crosswords. H.G.Wells's first book was a biology textbook.

Our pics shows a suited Francois signing his book at The Hay festival for newly knighted Sir Terry Pratchett, also for 2 fans. Insert shows Lord Bragg, sadly uncollected as far as I know.

12 February 2009

On Collecting Books by Tramps

Et tu Healey? I was talking to the writer R.M.Healey. He had read our recent piece about Colin Wilson and told me that Wilson was not the only writer to have slept by night on Hampstead Heath and written a book by day. This lead to Robin writing the piece below on homeless writers, tramps, hobos etc., I first met Robin when he interviewed me for Rare Book Review. This long piece was posted here in several parts as 'Tales of the Uncollected.' We had talked of the supertramp W.H. Davies and the legendary tramp/hobo Jim Phelan....

Some other homeless writers may be worth collecting. Knut Hamsun, as a notorious WW2 collaborator and supporter of Quisling, has gone out of fashion a little, and perhaps he was never homeless for very long, but in his teens he did trek across America as a tramp and a pedlar, which must have furnished much autobiographical detail for his debut novel Hunger (1890).Actually, to my shame, I had never heard of Hamsun when I came across the first English translation, published by Leonard Smithers in 1899. I found it in a a jumble sale over 20 years ago . It was the board illustration that first attracted me –a sort of Beggarstaff Brothers line drawing of an emaciated face with a hopeless, downtrodden expression. On the flyleaf was a tipped-in signature of its translator, ‘ George Egerton ‘, which I later discovered was the pen name of a young Irish writer called Chavelina Dunne, author of Keynotes , whose correspondence with a number of fin de siecle writers was collected by Terence de vere White in 1958.

Copies of the Egerton translation, which remains current today, are very thin on the ground. I seem to recall there were a couple in ABE a few years ago, but I couldn't locate any the other day. Nor does ABE feature any of the Norwegian first, which the 2000 edition of Book Collecting prices at a measly $350 (shurely shome mishtake). However, paperback copies of the English transalation are legion and cheap enough, though some Aussie blagger has the cheek to ask £60 68p for a paperback published in 2007.!! My Egerton first , with its tipped in signature, must command quite a bit more than even the true first , but I think I’ll keep it. Hamsun won the Nobel prize, after all, and has been called the father of modern literature by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who compared him to Kafka. I can't think of anyone else who was writing quite like him in the late 1880s.

I doubt whether John Gawsworth ever troubled the Nobel judges, but if the notoriously unreliable Derek Stanford is to be trusted, he seems to have been as rebarbative as the gifted Norwegian in many ways. Often drunk and with a reputation for physical violence and boorsishness he alienated many fellow poets by his behaviour. Nor does a glance at his verse, or at his many anthologies, inspire one to defend him. All that King of Redonda tosh bores me senseless , but I know many who love it.

Is ( or was ) Gawsworth collected ? His unsigned volumes of poetry rarely fetch much more than £10 on the Net and a lot less in shops. Signed copies are a different matter. A copy of Poems of Today, an otherwise dull little collection, rockets to £70 in ABE because Gawsworth has written a poem in it. Likewise another bookseller ask £80 for his ' Very Rare ' copy of Flesh of Cypris, with its ' loosely inserted note ' from the poet. But for real vicarious bohemianism you must go to the two volumes of Gawsworth's personal diaries in manuscript, the only items that truly deserve the label ' very rare '. You'll have to pay Richrad Ford of London £1,500 for these . Incidentally, does anyone remember a TV feature on Gawsworth following his death in 1970 ?. I seem to recall him wearing a filthy and tattered overcoat as he picked his way through bargain boxes in Charing Cross Road ( or perhaps it was Farringdon Road ) while a voice-over narrated his fall from grace—from respected editor of Poetry Review to vagrant. The film ended with Gawsworth reciting one of his own poems which ended with the exclamatory ‘ Damn you, poetry ! ' Those last words have stuck with me through the years---a cri de couer from the mouth of a mediocre literary flaneur. .

A tip of the battered bowler hat to you Robin! To be continued with Paul Potts and Francois Greefe.

11 February 2009

Powys. The Second Hand Bookshop Rant 2

Plato, that poetical enemy of poets, would certainly recommend his philosopher-kings to abolish second-hand bookshops. A second-hand bookshop can blow sky-high the machinations of centuries of first-hand politicians. It sets the prophet against the priest, the prisoner against society, the has-nothing against the has-all, the individual against the universe!

Here ends Peter Eaton's Book-Mark piece... Powys continues in strident tone-

"... It is as heavily charged with the sweet mischiefs of sex as the privy-walls of a railway station, or the imagination of St. Anthony.

Here are the poisons to kill, the drugs to soothe, the fire-water to madden, the ichor to inflame, the nectar to imparadise! The infinite pathos of all the generations lies here, their beatings against the wall, their desperate escapes, their triumphant reconciliations. In the Beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God--and the Devil stole the Word out of the cradle. The everlasting contrariety, whereby creation is stirred into movement, seethes and ferments in books, in all books; and from the cold glaciers of books plunge down the death-avalanches of ultimate negation that whirl us into the gulf... we escape from it into the architectural spaces of the public library of our town, where matriarchy prevails, and where the mad reasonings of the sons of men are kept in complete control by the aid of catalogues and dusters. But after all one has only to think of those old, great, heroic bookworms of the early times, with their voracious, insatiable maw for everything written, only to think of Rabelais for instance, who certainly would have been caught invading those forbidden shelves, to be led back to our second-hand bookshop."

Such writing can seem somewhat overwrought, jejune, bombastic, even unhinged. Some regarded him as a windbag. Certainly It has a touch of the pulpit about it. His idea that women belong in libraries rather than shops would not play well now. Many of his ideas, however, are still relevant- second hand bookshops have become oases of sedition, eccentricity, obscurity and unashamed intellectual fervour in an increasingly conformist and dumbed down world.

Powys is good on 'browsers' - the great bookseller Simon Gough, now retired, used to chuck people out of his shop if they said they were 'only browsing' -he was once heard shouting at a customer. "If you want to browse, go and do it outside - get out"!!!!! If Simon liked you, however, he would offer you a 'dish of tea'. Another East Anglian bookseller Bob Jackson (oddly enough a former member of the Powys society) offers tea to all customers and often leaves them browsing while he goes off on a house call asking them to pay for their books in an honesty box.

I mentioned in the last posting that Peter Eaton's Powys Book Mark may have led to an amazing book buy. On the back (see pic) he asks for 'old books before 1860. Old letters, postcards, journals, also office waste, account books, bills etc..... It was the phrase 'office waste' that probably led to some clearance merchants (in some versions rubbish collectors) turning up one day at his shop with a van full of papers from the study of the orientalist and poet Arthur Waley (1889-1966)-- a lifetime of manuscripts, letters and journals, said to have been worth a fortune. Waley would have had fabulous material - he had been Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum where he taught himself Chinese and Japanese and translated classics and poetry from these languages and was also on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group. Also what may have helped was Eaton's well known mantra 'don't throw anything away...'

09 February 2009

John Cowper Powys. The Second Hand Bookshop. A Rant.

"What a history of human excesses a second-hand book-shop is! As you 'browse' there– personally I can't abide that word, for to my mind book-lovers are more like hawks and vultures than sheep, but of course if its use encourages poor devils to glance through books that they have no hope of buying, long may the word remain!–you seem to grow aware what a miracle it was when second-hand book-shops were first invented. Women prefer libraries, free or otherwise, but it too often happens that the books an ordinary man wants are on the 'forbidden shelves'. But there is no censorship in a second-hand book-shop. Every good bookseller is a multiple-personality, containing all the extremes of human feeling. He is an ascetic hermit, he is an erotic immoralist, he is a Papist, he is a Quaker, he is a communist, he is an anarchist, he is a savage iconoclast, he is a passionate worshipper of idols. Though books, as Milton says, may be the embalming of mighty spirits, they are also the resurrection of rebellious, reactionary, fantastical and wicked spirits! In books dwell all the demons and all the angels of the human mind.

It is for this reason that a bookshop--especially a second-hand bookshop--is an arsenal of explosives, an armoury of revolutions, an opium den of reactions. And just because books are the repository of all the redemptions and damnations, all the sanities and insanities, of the divine anarchy of the soul, they are still, as they have always been, an object of suspicion to every kind of ruling authority.

In a second-hand bookshop are the horns of the altarwhere all the outlawed thoughts of humanity can takerefuge! Here, like desperate bandits, hide all the reckless progeny of our wild, dark, self-lacerating hearts. A bookshop is a powder-magazine, a dynamite-shed, a drug store of poisons, a bar of intoxicants, a den of opiates, an island of sirens.

Of all the "houses of ill fame" which a tyrant, a bureaucrat, a propagandist, a moralist, a champion of law and order, an advocate of keeping people ignorant for their own good, hurries past with averted eyes or threatens with his minions, a bookshop is the most flagrant.
[Adapted by the great old Holland Park bookseller Peter Eaton in the late 1960s for a Book-mark ('Old Books Bought' added) from essays of J.C. Powys in his 1938 work 'Enjoyment of Literature.']


More to follow including the spicier climactic end of the rant omitted (for reasons of decency, length and commerce.) It is possible that this bookmark lead to the call of a lifetime. Watch this space.

04 February 2009

Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891

Oscar Wilde.THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. Ward, Lock & Co.,London, New York and Melbourne. 1891.

Current Selling Prices


Wilde's only novel, considered by some to be his greatest work. One of the very few examples of decadent English literature, also a fantasy (listed in Bleiler as MX7- i.e. 'Magical Objects / Allegory, Symbolism). Oscar Wilde, chiding a hostile and prurient newspaper critic wrote- "Leave my book, I beg you, to the immortality that it deserves" and insisted in his preface "...there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That's all." Dorian Gray first appeared in Lippincott's simultaneously in Philadelphia and London, on June 20, 1890. This publication was immediately followed by publication of an unauthorized, pirated version of the tale, printed June 22, 1890 in New York by M. J. Ivers & Co. Wilde then substantially revised the work and added six new chapters and this the Ward, Lock 1891 edition is the normal first edition that you see (there is also the one of 250 Large Paper copies signed by the great man.) There is a simple issue point on the trade first edition,the first issue has the word "and" misspelled "nd" on page 208 eight lines from the bottom.

The plot it is summed up in this piece of pre publicity for the new 'Dorian' movie due to hit screens on 11 September 2009 - 'A corrupt young man somehow keeps his youthful beauty eternally, but a special painting gradually reveals his inner ugliness to all.' It stars Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton, the aristocrat who corrupts Gray and one Ben Barnes as the beautiful Dorian doomed in the Faustian pact. Apparently it is being done as a horror flick. It has been filmed several times notably the 1945 movie with George Sanders as Wotton --a b/w fim that bursts into Technicolor whenever the portrait is shown in close-up (as I recall.)

VALUE? The book has made over £25000 in auction inscribed. In 2006 a copy inscribed to Lady Dorothy Nevill (Sotheby's, July 13) made £22,000 (then $40,480) without the premium. The book is in Stuart Mason's bibliography as item 328. This copy varied from Mason in that there was a full stop after Dorian in the title and there is no final blank. Possibly an early issue of the first issue or a one-off printer's error. Lady Dorothy Nevill (1826 - 1913) was something of a grande dame, friend of Whistler and Disraeli and as a horticulturalist she is known to have supplied Charles Darwin with rare plants for his researches. She wrote four books of her memoirs ('Under Five Reigns' etc.,) some of which are still asked for but none of which are valuable.

The 1891 signed issue of 250 copies seldom makes less than £5000 in auction and dealers tend to want in excess of £8000 for it, even rebound. The regular edition is hard to find for less than £1500 unless in lousy condition; it has shown up wearing a green oil cloth dust jacket which added much value. The Lippincott magazine edition although considerably shorter than the book can make over a £1000 if decent and nearly a $1000 if a bit shabby. We sold an embarasssingly bad one (all faults shown) on Ebay in 2006 for a gratifying $550. They may be cheapskates and bottom feeders over there, but they are at least tolerant of a book in shagged out condition. Wilde prices shot up noticeably in the late 1990s and have remained high and may have now levelled off. The new movie might bump start Oscar prices once more.

TRIVIA. In 1943 Ivan Albright was commissioned to create the title painting for Albert Lewin's film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray which came out in 1945. His realistic, but exaggerated, depictions of decay and corruption made him very well suited to undertake such a project. His brother was chosen to do the original uncorrupted painting of Gray, but the painting used on the film was from Henrique Medina. Ivan made the changes in the painting during the film. This original painting currently resides in the Art Institute of Chicago. (Thank you Wikipedia)

British smack pack novelist, the gifted and amusing Will Self, wrote a modern version recasting Dorian as a 1990s Zeitgeist figure -druggery, buggery, thuggery, cruelty, betrayal, disease and all the newer nastiness--the New Yorker said it was '...as if Nancy Mitford and Johnny Rotten had decided to collaborate.' Lord Henry, a deeply unpleasant cock, was said to be based on a London figure, probably less than happy in this role. The book was received glumly by most reviewers. The CD, read by Self himself, is very good for a longish car journey.

It is generally assumed that Oscar's Lord Henry was based on Lord Ronald Gower a sculptor and known homosexual of the time. He sued a paper that mentioned this and when the Prince of Wales sent him a letter accusing him of being "a member of an association for unnatural practices", Gower wrote an angry reply along the lines of 'How very dare you!' John Addington Symonds, who stayed with him once, stated that Gower "saturates ones spirit in Urningthum of the rankest most diabolical kind."