RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS
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...'