30 April 2009

The Shell Guides 1933-1984 (continued)

...Shell Guides have become a national treasure , so it’s no wonder they are high prized . Prices ? Well, let’s start at the lunatic end of the market with Ken Deighton of Bournemouth . Is there some mind-bending ray given out by the Net ( like the ozone from photocopiers ) that turns otherwise sensible dealers into rapacious monsters ? Or could it be the sea air in Bournemouth ? On hearing of Deighton’s I was reminded of Deighton and Bell, a once famous antiquarian bookshop in Trinity Street, Cambridge fronted for many years by the late lamented and incomparable Patricia Huskinson, descendant of the first man to be run over by a train, friend of everything and everyone Polish and of poets, in whose home in Barley you were likely to find yourself having breakfast with Jon Silkin or taking tea with Geoffrey Hill, as I did.

I rang up old Ken in Bournemouth and asked if his shop had any connection with the much missed Cambridge premises . I was told that no, it didn’t, but he wished it did, such was the reputation of Deighton and Bell. Well, Ken, I can assure you that if Patricia H. had been asked by her boss to demand £950 each for what were basically remaindered copies of the original spiral bound firsts that Faber had inherited from Batsford, and had cased, adding a new jacket and a cancel title page, she’d have dropped dead with shame. If they feel that asking an extra £800 odd for a bit of seventy-year old board and a jacket is acceptable they must be living on the planet Zanussi.

Incidentally, I have two of these cased Fabers ( Cornwall and Somerset ) without the jackets, one of which I picked up in a Letchworth junk shop for twenty pence. If you look closely, you can see the join where the new title page has been stuck in. Yes, they are rare, even very rare, but if other dealers ( St Mary Books and Prints, for one) can charge sensible prices for similar copies, why can’t D of B?

Actually, Deighton’s seem to be exceptions. Most of the prices of Guides on the Net are not extortionate, though very few are cheap. There are some anomalies, though. Back in 1982 in Sussex I bought at a bookshop ( not a jumble sale, as Chris Mawson claims in his otherwise excellent Shell Guide site ) four of the early spiral bound Guides for 50p each, not realising back then that they were rare. But actually, not all are that rare. Take Bucks by John Nash. About 15 years later I bought another Bucks ( can’t remember where ) for just £1.50 and just a year or so ago there was at least copy on ABE priced at around £30 . Today Rota are offering a Bucks at $215, something of a rip. According to them this title is ‘ one of the least easily found volumes ‘, whereas in fact it is one of the more common ones. It’s also one of the best. The book is more valuable as a guide in its balanced view of the county, its presentation of facts, and its visual qualities than Hants, Derbyshire or Somerset. I have suggested elsewhere that it was while editing Bucks that Betch was inspired to write his famous poem ‘Slough ‘ and that the wonderful photomontage of Slough by the mysterious ‘ Cecil H Greville’ was actually assembled by wily old Betch himself.

Betjeman’s Devon and Cornwall aren’t as expensive as you would think, considering they are prime example of Betch at his finest ranting- against- suburbia phase. ABE have a Devon at $144.72. Kent and Derbyshire don’t seem to be particularly sought after and can be found for under £50 each. Wiltshire, compiled by Robert Byron in 1935, is another matter entirely. It used to sell many years ago for well under £50, but today is recognised as one of the more sought after titles, possibly because Byron, who was killed in the War, was also the celebrated author of The Road to Oxiana. When Faber took over publication David Verey was invited to update the text , but a good deal of what had appeared 21 years earlier, was retained, including much of the title page and Byron’s ‘ angry ‘ notes on Antiquities. If you are buying through ABE expect to pay anything from £150 to Deighton’s $379.30. If you can wait, you’d probably get a copy at some jumble sale somewhere for a quid.

Dorset by Paul Nash ( wrongly attributed to brother John in the list of ‘ other Shell Guides ‘ in Bucks, but corrected in the Hants of 1937 ) is the must have—a document of British Surrealism that is sought after by historians of the movement. I don’t yet have a copy, and am not tempted by an ex library copy priced at $208 on ABE. Hants by John Rayner is probably the most disappointing in many ways, mainly because of its very inadequate gazetteer. Rayner was only given the job because he was Betch’s editor at the Sunday Express. But the book, with its pink and green photographs, does show Betjeman’s willingness to experiment in design ,. If you are a completist, buy the thing, but don’t expect an interesting book. Thanks Robin. To be continued. It is worth noting that the Ipcress man has had these guides at daft prices since before Ken's congestion charge. If a book doesn't shift in 4 years it is either very overpriced or very obscure...

28 April 2009

The Shell Guides 1933-1984

Another contribution from the estimable R.M. Healey, this time on these highly collectable guides. The early ones came out of our whimsical avant-garde and have the influence of surrealism albeit with a British twist. It has been suggested that W.H. Auden was keen to do one but the Faber crew were worried he might spoof the series. Take it away Robin...

Shell Guides are now so fashionable, so collected, that last year Middlesex University ran an exhibition on them at the MODA, near Cockfosters. . Naturally, as a Shell Guide writer myself , (Hertfordshire of 1982, if you must know ) I made a special effort to see it, despite the fact that I was a little miffed that no-one had asked me to take part in the planned symposium organised by the show’s curator, ‘ cultural historian ‘ David Heathcote. It was a well put together show by someone who is clearly passionate about the Guides. He has talked about them on Radio 4 and is now doing a book .

While I was looking for mistakes on the captions I saw a woman poring over one of the books generously supplied by the Museum for those not familiar with the Guides and their context. She had come from Thornton Heath or somewhere especially to see the exhibition and seemed impressed when I pointed out my own Guide in the case—but spoiled the mood when she admitted to also liking those horrible King’s England books with their revolting sepia photographs. I tried to convince her of the Guides’ superiority over any county guide that had appeared before or since, and then realised that I was in danger of getting pompous, so I shut up.

The Shell Guides are rightly revered and are obvious candidates for academic interest. Can you imagine any academic institution celebrating King’s England or those Edwardian Ward Lock Guides with their endless pages of ads for hotels and thermal spas ? I suppose Pevsner’s Buildings of England will be the next focus for another ‘ cultural historian ‘, possibly from the University of East Croydon. A whole book, Stylistic Cold Wars, has been written on the rivalry between the Shell Guides and The Buildings of England, and a very silly book it is too.

The Guides have many celebrated admirers today. One is Richard Ingrams, who is a fan of both Betjeman and John Piper —another the magnificent Jonathan Meades, champion of the even greater Ian Nairn. Both were happy to show me their collections when I interviewed them.

Indeed, the Guides have seemed to have a glitzy, show-businessy appeal from the start. John Betjeman, who began his broadcasting career in the mid thirties, founded the series in 1933 and thereafter tried to commission writers with a certain amount of glamour, or at least media appeal. Shell Guide writers have included big name artists like Paul Nash and Piper ;the avant garde playwright Ann Jellicoe co-wrote Devon with her trendy photographer husband Roger Mayne, and eccentric aristocrats, or near aristocrats like Christopher Hobhouse or Henry Thorold were roped in. Then there are those big names who were approached and who declined—like Geoffrey Grigson —and those ( how embarrassing ) who begged Betch to commission them, but who were rejected—like day-out- in- the country hack S.P.B Mais and Herts local history bore, R Branch Johnson. And of course there were the wannabe topographical tyros who sent in manuscripts only to have them rejected. Oh dear. To be continued with a consderation of Shell Guide prices, some immoderate, especially in the chines of Bournemouth...

23 April 2009

Curries by Mulk Raj Anand, 1932

Mulk Raj Anand. CURRIES AND OTHER INDIAN DISHES. Desmond Harmsworth, London 1932.

Current Selling Prices
$80-$200 /£50-£140

This is a book that I used to see in almost any respectable cookery collection- it would go for less than £10 and a little more if nice in jacket because it was, after all, an early work by the mildly collected Indian writer. Now all is changed; at present there are only 5 copies online priced between £50 and £150, the latter price, as always, for the poorest copy ('standard used condition.')

An early work on the subject. Indian restaurants were rare in England in the 1930s. The only one I can trace is the still extant Veeraswamy's (established in 1926 off Regent Street 'by the great grandson of an English General, and an Indian princess.') A customer recalls going there in the 1940s when it was full of Colonel Blimps and an electric Punka was in operation. A current photo of its interior (below) reveals an opulent and sedate dining area, not suitable for poppadum frenzy or vindaloo excess. In America Indian restaurants were uncommon until the 1980s. I recall that there was not a single Indian curry to be had in Los Angeles in 1975; there may be now as may as a 100 such restaurants in the city and the suburbs of L.A.

Our author gives the names of two London suppliers of all the ingredients used in the book - Stembridge in Cecil Court (now a great book street) and C.A. Naidu in Lexington Street, Soho. Anand begins with a tribute to that grand man 'Uncle' Norman Douglas:-
'...with that subtle irony and happy wit characteristic of him, Mr. Norman Douglas once declared that "Curry is India's greatest contribution to mankind." Those whose lucky star has bought them under the spell of Mr. Douglas will understand the sense in which that epigram is true. I laughed heartily when I read the statement...'
Mulk Raj Anand also quotes Aleister Crowley, another great gourmet, with a more generous assessment of Curry power:-
'...Curries with their vast partitioned platter of curious condiments to lackey them, speak for themselves. They sting like serpents, stimulate like strychnine; they are subtle, sensual like Chinese courtesans, sublime and sacred, inscrutably inspiring and intelligently illuminating, like Cambodian carvings.'
In the matter of the deadly poison strychnine, which the Great Beast appears to have imbibed, Wikipedia notes 'small doses of strychnine were once used in medications as a stimulant, a laxative and as a treatment for other stomach ailments...'

Here is a simple recipe from this interesting book:-
1/2 lb. lentils
1/2 oz. butter
1 small onion (sliced)
1/2 teaspoonful of black pepper
1/2 teaspoonfulred pepper
1/2 teaspoonful powdered turmeric
Salt to tatse.

Carefully pick the stones out of the dal and soak for about an hour in a panful of cold water.
Put it to boil in a panful of boiled water. Sprinkle in some salt and turmeric and stir.
When the lentils are tender, fry the sliced onion in melted butter with black and red pepper in a different pan. Pour this fried mixture into the pan containing the dal to the consistency of porridge over a gentle heat. Take care while putting in the butter to keep the lid partly on so that the liquid does not fly back to your face and hands.
A simple dal that might be improved with frying a small amount of cumin seeds and some chopped garlic. The orange dal needs no soaking, but some lentils require much longer than an hour and stones can still be found. To be continued with a consideration of other curry book values including the 'Glasgow Good Curry Guide' from 1988 priced at a spicy £400...

20 April 2009

Only a bookshop but one more is gone... Part 2. Bibliocide.

STOP PRESS In last week's Guardian the actor, writer and bookshop frequenter Simon Callow wrote:
'...The bibliocide in the Charing Cross Road continues its depressing course apparently unchecked. The one gleam of light is the reinvention of Foyles, which has now become a very enterprising outfit, its stock, and indeed its general layout, informed by discernible individual taste. But a block further down the road, beyond Cambridge Circus, in what was once the heart of the book village, glumness is everywhere, the most recent losses being Murder Inc and Shipley's three excellent art book shops. Two Zwemmer's shops are long gone. In their places spring up Chinese herbalists, poster shops and coffee houses, all of which no doubt cater to pressing needs; meanwhile the character of the area is being fundamentally undermined. Soon, like the block it faces, it will be just another outpost of Oxford Street. The excellent Henry Pordes and Any Amount of Books hold up gallantly, with Quinto on the corner, but their backs are against the wall. The bitter irony of all this is that the block is owned by a charity, the Soho Housing Association, whose charter demands that it raise the most money it possibly can: it is by definition committed to trashing the area.

Further down Charing Cross Road, all traces of the bookselling trade have been eliminated, except for one astonishing enclave, Cecil Court, where, as if in a time machine, the book trade flourishes as it once did. There are several very good shops in it that don't sell books - an original poster shop; an excellent shop selling prints; Tim Bryars's antique map shop; Mark Sullivan's wonderful emporium of bibelots. But for the rest, there is richness to gladden any bibliophile's heart: Pleasures of Past Times, David Drummond's incomparable theatre bookshop; Nigel Williams's rare books; modern first editions specialists Tindley & Chapman; Marchpane, an Aladdin's cave of a children's bookshop; a very snazzy Italian bookshop; Watkins's esoteric bookshop (a little more new age than it was, but stocked to the rafters with genuine arcana), to name only a few. It stands as a model of what a commercial district can be: it celebrates what it sells; it is an entertainment in itself; every shop is run by an individual whose tastes are absolutely personal and identifiable; the love of the trade is palpable. Nobody here is making a fortune; to survive respectably is all anyone asks.

So naturally it is under threat. Though the government has backed off from raising the business rate by a full 5% this year, a 2% rise, to be followed by a further 3% in the next two years, will wipe out the tiny profit margin that keeps businesses of this sort alive. What these shops need is more meaningful business-rate relief. Write, urgently, to the local MP Mark Field, who is masterminding a campaign to save one of the capital's last oases of real bookselling.'


Mark Field MP
House of Commons

The indispensable TLS picked up on this story and also warn of the threat to this 'uniquely bibliophiliac stretch of Charing Cross Road.' All power to Mark Field for working on this case, not necessarily a cause that will win votes but part of the the energy and dauntless spirit of London's centre and (let's not play it down) our heritage of the entire world of books, knowledge, wisdom and whimsy; no less.

17 April 2009

A Shropshire Lad 1896

A. E. Housman. A SHROPSHIRE LAD. Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., London, 1896.

Current Selling Prices
$2000-$5000 /£1300-£3500

Housman published 'A Shropshire Lad' at his own expense after several publishers had rejected it (Bullen and Macmillan among them.) The 500 copies sold slowly at first, but the South African war of 1899 helped to make popular its mixture of stoicism, patriotic pride. pessimism and nostalgia. By the time of WW1 it was a best seller and is most commonly seen in its small vest pocket format. The actual first is an octavo (172 by 110 mm) in pale blue paper boards, white parchment spine and a spine label that can show up in 4 almost identical states (its down to the roundness of the Os and Us.)

The value of the book can be traced across the 113 years since publication. The book, in terms of the purchasing power of money, was worth a lot more in the late 1920s than now, although some copies since have made very serious sums. The copy presented to Moses John Jackson made £45,000 in 2001. Moses was the inspiration for the masterpiece. AEH had loved him and was forlorn when he left for India to get married. The relationship between Housman & Jackson is the subject of Tom Stoppard's play, 'The Invention of Love'.

Although Housman was a conscientious correspondent, responding to many fans and fellow writers, he seldom inscribed his books. To one collector he wrote '... I am afraid that you have paid an exorbitant price for the first edition of A Shropshire Lad and that you may wish to have it returned to you by registered post.' The price of the first edition of A Shropshire Lad, which had only been four pounds in 1919, reached $157.50 (divide by 4 for pounds) in 1923 and, by 1929, $625.00. My earliest Book Auction Records, a volume from 1948 reveals 3 copies in that year making £29 and £16 and £9, in the early 1950s two inscribed copies made $200 and £44.

By the 1960s it was making nearly £100 and in 1976 a signed copy with a signed photo & 9 ALs s loosely inserted made a stonking $1200 at Sotheby's New York, with regular copies making $500. By the mid 1990s unsigned copies were making $1000 and in 2002 copies started making over £1000. in January this year at Freeman's USA $2125 was paid for a copy described thus - 'Small 8vo, orig. 1/4 vellum & gray-blue bds; paper spine label, edges untrimmed; extremities discolored. Internally clean. Complete with 1/2 title. With the word "Shropshire" on paper spine label 33 mm wide. With 2 bookplates on front paste-down, incl. Rockwell Kent designed Frederick Baldwin Adams, Jr. book plate. In custom 1/2 morocco & cloth slipcase with red cloth chemise. Presentation copy from Louise Guiney to Rev. William H. Van Allen of Boston. Guiney had writted an enthusuastic (and unsolicited) review of the work for the Chap-Book.' Meanwhile on ABE there are 6 copies, none fine, over £3000, something of a noli tangere price and 5 more between £1200 and £2800.

OUTLOOK? Copies are rather thick on the ground at present, and poetry does not often sell with alacrity (with a few exceptions, mostly Irish.) Not a book to buy and lay down unless sharp and bought at about a £1000. With Housman presentations and letters go particularly well. There are some rarities among his other works- such as 'Praefanda' published in Germany in 1931--a collection of bawdy and obscene passages from Latin authors with a learned preface of 'solemn irony.' Almost unknown and possibly worth as much as £1000. Illustrated editions are collected, for example the 1940 Agnes Miller Parker edition. Although it can be procured in a nice jacket for £60 there are the usual suspects wanting over a £100, one with this amusing sales pitch in the 'suits you sir' mode for a copy at £200, a mind-boggling sum given condition-- '...RARE to find this most attractive edition in a slightly damaged but complete jacket. Foxing to the rear blank panel, and a lost corner, but nothing 'live' is missing. Now protected. The nicest edition of this wonderful poignant collection, with the brilliant wood engravings fresh and clear in their first impressions. A classic in every way...'

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows;
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again...

10 April 2009

Scouts in Bondage

Geoffrey Prout. SCOUTS IN BONDAGE. A Story of Boy Scouts in Strange Adventure.
Aldine Publishing Co. Goodship House, [London]. [No date / 1930.]

Current Selling Prices
$60-$300 /£45-£200

Wandering through a local seaside down this Easter afternoon I spotted this excellent book in the window of a second hand bookshop. Knowing the uncanny canniness of the owner I was slightly worried about buying the book but a £20 note was exchanged. The internet reveals no copy at less than £100, several copies around £200 and no copies in dust jacket. Result! Time for punching the air etc., Whether the book ever sells for significant sums is another matter. The book has no real use except to display in shop windows and face out on a shelf for a good, but brief laugh - and therefore in these glum times it may not necessarily translate into further folding money.

It is probably the ultimate 'bizarre' book title. There are two books about strange or inappropriately titled called 'Scouts in Bondage' and the book is featured on the cover of Russell Ash and Brian Lake's magisterial 'Bizarre Books.' Geoffrey Prout was also author of 'Trawler Boy Dick', also worthy of a chuckle. I am indebted to blogster Mister Roy ('...raised by wolves on waste ground in Portslade') for a summary of the plot.
A professor (who 'wore an old quilted black-satin dinner-jacket and a skullcap with a tassel on it'...) engages the Scouts to help dig up remains of a ruined chapel, seeking blocks of masonry with inscriptions. Assembled together these reveal the location of a secret treasure, actually a document which restores the rightful owners to the local mansion. Along the way, various lower-class 'wasters', 'hooligans' and even 'hobble-di-hoys' attempt to thwart them. Punches are thrown, rivers forged, cars crashed, tables full of pies demolished - and all is well in the end. It is an enchanting period piece. The text is punctuated with cries of 'Crumbs!', 'By Jingo!', Right-o!' and 'Well, I'm blest!' Prout was a Scoutmaster apparently and his enthusiasm for the movement shines through every page - it is in effect an advertisement for Scouting.
Scouts in Bondage is in the section of 'Bizarre Books called 'They Didn't Really Mean it' - other titles include 'Girls of the Pansy Patrol' (1931) 'Shag the Caribou' (1949) 'Explorations at Sodom' (1928) 'Handbook for the Limbless' (1922, foreword by John Galsworthy) 'Erections on Allotments' (no date) 'Penetrating Wagner's Ring' 'Enid Blyton's Gay Story Book' (1946) and 'Men who have Risen: A Book for Boys (1859).

OUTLOOK. Quite good, the taste for whimsy and bizarrery is probably growing in a post Python world, with the occasional wag willing to put money on the table for the stuff. There is probably a ceiling on values but the amount of bizarre, silly and zany titles is almost limitless. I heard sometime ago of someone selling a largish collection of these titles for a significant but not life-changing sum... Meanwhile on Amazon there is a jacketless copy in 'standard used condition' (whatever that is) at $265 ('LOW ITEM PRICE'.) The joke of the title is lost on Amazon's recommendation robot who suggests some DVDS -'... Customers Viewing This Page May Be Interested in Kidnapped Gagged Women or Beautiful Women Bound and Gagged!

06 April 2009

Only a bookshop but one more is gone...

I am indebted to a story on the back page of the latest Times Literary Supplement for telling me what is happening on my own street. Naturally I knew that two venerable Charing Cross Road bookshops closed in the last few months but I had not noticed the 'blue plaques' displayed in their windows until the polymaths at the TLS pointed them out (and incidentally gave our shop a bit of a puff**.) Here are the 2 plaques below...

Hopefully with rents kept at their present levels ( surely this is a very bad time to increase rents with commercial property values in freefall) and shoppers still willing to put on their clothes and leave home to walk down the streets into real shops, the remaining bookshops will be here well past the Boris Olympics, and into the roaring 2020s. Farewell Murder One ( finally booked) and the great Shipley Art book emporium soon to re-open in fancier premises, I am reliably informed.

The Shipley plaque says - ' A mecca for art lovers frequented by the likes of John Berger, Peter Blake, Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag. After 25 years of trading it closed its doors at 70 Charing Cross Road on Christmas Eve 2008' and the Murder One notice reads 'The UK's first and only specialist crime and mystery bookshop owned by the acclaimed author Maxim Jakubowski. Here it thrived for 21 years before being forced to close due to internet competition.' However as J W Dunne was fond of pointing out 'Nothing really dies' and Shipley will continue (see above) and as the little yellow notes around Murder One's plaque proclaim - 'Don't despair call Murder One ... for collecting books at our new premises located at Hoxton Square...' Their website proclaims that '...we are only an online bookshop and mail order, and get books in only for customer orders. So, if you stop by looking for books, the best we'll be able to offer you is a cup of tea!' From bricks to clicks.

** '...under a blueish crowd, we reached Any Amount of Books. Once occupying two neighbouring shops, it is now crammed into one, but of the best kind: higgledy - pi=ggledy, serendipitous, bargain-bountiful. We could fill a bookcase with flotsam and jetsam from the pound-a-book barrows outside...' TLS 3/4/09. 'Higgledy - piggledy, serendipitous, bargain-bountiful...' As Smashie and Nicey used to say 'wise words indeed...'

05 April 2009

Writers who were invalids...Clere Parsons & W.N.P. Barbellion

Another guest posting from R M Healey-- this time on writers as invalids. By the way Robin in his youth wrote the Shell Guide to Hertforshire (Faber, 1982) - copies can be bought on ABE at around £20 for sharp jacketed examples. He will survey this highly collectible series sometime soon. The illustration of the handwriting of the po├Ęte maudit Clere Parsons is from a small collection of books with his name (and occasional annotation) that I bought from a family member several years back, and have never got round to cataloguing. This inscription comes from his copy of 'Poems' by Geoofrey Dearmer published 1918 (some of them about the Great War and dedicated to a friend who had died at Suvla bay.) NB - the Macspaunday four are Macneice, Spender, Auden and Day-Lewis. Over to you Robin.

For someone with a morbid imagination like myself there is an engrossing site that lists all the medical conditions that contributed to the deaths of individuals featuring in the Wikipedia. So, for instance you can discover that Rex Harrison and Alan Bates both died of pancreatic cancer ( the list is dominated by actors ) or that Heinrich Heine suffered from MS. There seems to be a large number of celebs with both types of diabetes, and as a diabetic myself it was comforting to see a lot of writers among them. I already knew about H. G. Wells, who co-founded The British Diabetic Association , but I wasn’t aware that Ernest Hemingway and Mario Puzo were sufferers.

You won't find Clere Parsons in this Wikipedia list, although he perished of pneumonia, and a lack of insulin, in 1931 aged just 23. It has been said that had he lived he might have become as eminent as any in the MacSpaunday four, and is the nearest they have to a ‘ fifth Beatle ‘. Geoffrey Grigson, who was a contemporary at Oxford, knew him as ' tall, very thin, pallid, fair-haired, a trifle spotty, and aloof ...with lips which curled with a slightly curious authority '.

And it is Grigson who provides most of what we know about this invalid poet, who even while at Christ's College with Auden was always looking ill. His physical appearance was undoubtably a result of the debilitating effect of contracting type 1 early in life, probably before insulin was isolated in 1921. In those days loss of weight was symptomatic among those who managed to remain alive ( most with type 1 died within a few years of contracting the disease), but even with insulin therapy the legacy of his early illness must have effected his later health. Grigson, whose first wife was also an invalid (she died early of TB ), felt that his weakened constitution must have given him a sense that his time in this world was likely to be short, and inevitably many of his poems reflect a hedonistic, carpe diem attitude—poems like
‘Garden Goddess’ and ‘ Photogravure ‘.

But equally the possibility of a sudden end must also have occupied him, as we see in such a poem as ‘Sudden Death’ (‘ Stretch me upon your table, lay me bare ‘), and so it proved. Not long after graduating with a first in history he returned to a wintry Oxford, having been offered a job at the Bodleian. In cold digs he contracted a chill which turned to pneumonia, and though he was carted off to hospital, he died in a coma from lack of insulin, no-one, apparently being aware of his diabetes. This was many years before identity bracelets came onto the scene.

Parsons, alas is not well known, but deserves to be. Grigson called his poems ‘ exquisite, grave, artificial, and permanent ‘, but the only poem that features frequently on the Web is ‘Different’.

‘ Not to say what everyone else was saying
not to believe what everyone else believed
not to do what everybody did,
then to refute what everyone else was saying
then to disprove what everyone else believed
then to deprecate what everyone did,

was his way to come by understanding

how everyone else was saying the same as he was
believing what he believed
and did what doing ‘

While Parsons was editing Oxford Poetry, Auden was making his own debut with the famous hand-printed booklet of 1928. Though at the same college, Parsons doesn’t seem to have had much to do with Auden, but he was acquainted with MacNeice, who mentions him in his autobiography, The Strings are False. After his death Herbert Read--so often a nincompoop—did at least one good thing when he got Eliot to publish Parson’s modest legacy of poems in 1932.

Entranced by Grigson's touching cameo of this tragic figure, I ignored the invocation to seek out Poems in the Bodleian or the British Library and instead scoured bookshops in vain for half a dozen years, only in 1994 to be given a copy, along with other volumes of thirties poetry, by the poet F.T.Prince, when I interviewed him at his home in Southampton. Prince, who was four years older than Parsons, may have bought this modest half-a-crown pamphlet, with its card boards and lemon- yellow jacket when it appeared in what must have been a very small edition. Just how scarce Poems is today I only discovered recently when I looked it up on the net. ABE has just one copy --modestly priced at £45**

Had Parsons been more prolific a minor cult may have grown up around him, but I suppose we must be content with what we have. It’s a pity his centenary went unmarked in 2008, but there you are.

Having Type 1 diabetes is bad enough, but writers with MS are rarer, presumably because the depredations of this disease are such that only the most resolute find the strength to write. One of these was Bruce Cummings (1889 – 1919 ), the Barnstaple-born journalist who became through sheer doggedness an entomologist at the British Museum.

The diary he decided to keep from 1904 was probably inspired by that of another invalid who died young, the artist Marie Bashkirtseff , and detailed all the stages of his decline as he daily endured debilitating physical pain with commendable courage and wry humour . This record was never meant to be published and was only prepared for the press when its author eventually learnt his fate and was determined to provide for his wife and children. The Journal of a Disappointed Man (published under the nom de plume W N P Barbellion) was an overnight sensation and plaudits were heaped upon its author, though this reception was marred somewhat by the refusal by a few rather stupid reviewers to accept that a scientist could be capable of such a brilliantly written literary testament. H. G. Wells and Daisy Ashford were names that cropped up as possible contenders, —though how anyone could attribute Barbellion’s rueful reflections on illness and death, and musings on the sensual life and on heterosexual lust, to the juvenile and lightweight Daisy Ashford-- is beyond me.

The Journal was reprinted several times from 1919 and Barbellion’s popularity remained constant over many years. According to Book Collecting 2000 the value of a first has stayed stable at $100 for at least a decade, which perhaps reflects that fact that no-one has thought to turn the book into a Hollywood movie. And though scandalously overlooked by The Oxford Chronology of English Literature, which can easily find places for those literary titans, Tony Parsons and Iain Banks ( incidentally, Clere Parsons is omitted too ), and despite the attempts by Eric Bond Hutton, Barbellion’s most articulate champion, to boost his reputation , Barbellion is probably destined, like his equally brilliant contemporary, Charlotte Mew, always to be unfashionable for whatever reason.

There was a time when I was coming across copies of The Journal of a Disappointed Man regularly in second-hand bookshops, but today copies seem to be scarcer . ABE features just 29 copies of several editions, including a 2008 paperback at £39.45 and what appear to be two firsts at £20 and £12.99. Doubtless, Barbellion's low profile in the shops is a constant annoyance to Hutton, who has often complained that his completed ( or near-complete ) biography has yet to excite publishers. So far, only his anthology The Quotable Barbellion has appeared, and a follow-up, Barbellion and his Critics, though promised by his publishers, has yet to surface.

I used to rib Hutton for his almost obsessive devotion to Barbellion, though perhaps invalids do and should inspire such dedication. But in the year in which Edward Upward has died at 105 with a shamefully thin back catalogue of a mere three or four books, surely Barbellion’s unique, introspective, almost visionary work of great good humour, deserves to engage the attention of critics and collectors once again.

** The ABE copy is in undesirable condition although the book is vulnerable--it is the same format exactly as Auden's 1930 'Poems' but whereas the Auden is blue Clere is green (as I recall.) The Auden is also hard to find in acceptable condition. A sharp clean copy of Parsons 1932 'Poems' should command nearly a £100. I think Peter Joliffe, who liked him, had one at around this price - but I might be mistaken.

02 April 2009

Joan Barton --a House Call

We posted an earlier poem by the late, great Joan Barton poet and bookseller (1908 - 1988.) This is probably the only findable poem about a house call--that is a bookdealer visiting someone's house to buy books. Often there is an element of pathos, especially when a death has occasioned the sale. A person's book collection often says a lot about them-their character, foibles, passions, obsessions, experiences and convictions. There will be many books given to them as gifts, books inherited from parents, school prizes, leaving presents and even books from their childhood with their name in a childish hand. In the pages of the books old letters, ephemera and photos will be found, sometimes snaps of old girl friends and long dead pets--in the earlier poem Joan refers to this - 'the ghost dogs in the vanishing gardens.' Sometimes there is a sense that the person did not have enough time to read and study even a small part of their collection. In one call, after I had given a substantial cheque--the grieving wife thanked me and said 'but it won't bring him back'. In tribute to the unknown owner of the books in Joan's poem, who spent his life as a clerk with the GWR I have put an image of Turner's great painting below 'Rain, Steam and Speed the Great Western Railway''

There is a feeling of finality when the books are carted out of the house and loaded in a van to be later priced and dispersed. Joan captures this, although in her case the widow is glad to see the books go. I have no idea who Williams the Hammer poet is -Google knows him not nor Allibone**. The H U L is the Home University Library (now unsaleable), Jefferies is the great rural writer Richard Jefferies. Thinkers' and People's Libraries are small self improving books also hard to sell these days. Everyman's and Nelson's Sevenpennies are mostly pocketsize classics and fiction. The little red Sevenpennies were much collected by Graham Greene and his irascible brother Hugh but hardly anyone else. Take it away Joan:-


A red semi-detached in the Swindon suburbs
Where the milky westering plain
Flows out to the sky.
One of a hundred such in their tidy rows,
Privet hedge, London Pride, brown rep in the window bay,
All that was meet and bright
Those twenty years past-
But this one was crammed with books
While it went along with the rest.

"I suppose it was a sort of religion"
The widow who had summoned us said,
With questioning looks:
This clerk with the old Great Western
Scarcely retired then suddenly dead,
A man in a Swindon tradition-
Evening Institute and Working Men's College
Had been made for him,
To whom Jefferies and Williams the Hammer Poet
Were the closest kin.

All the masters and makers and leaders
Buttressed the bedrooms, landing, hall,
Thinkers' and People's Libraries,
Dim old H. U. L.,
Forgotten Nelson's Sevenpennies,
Ubiquitous Everyman*,
Crowding baths and dangling chain;
The attic was peaked to the roof,
Scarcely a fingerhold there;
The illumination of gods
Lit the dark bend of the stair.

"It wasn't as though he was lonely,
We had the boys and I was here,
But he cycled off every Saturday
And he kept bringing them back
Then they were everywhere."
("Not in my little sitting-room!" she had cried
Too late- it was soon engulfed
By the strange unstemmable tide).
"It wasn't as though we were rich;
And books breed dust" she said.

He had not time to read half of them
They were there in case,
In case he could grasp it,
For fear he should miss it, whatever it was,
So he thought of those Saturday trips
Under the hump of the downs,
Where the White Horses stamp at gaze
Harebells and lesser broomrapes
Thin on the old chalk bones,
By way of upland villages
To the distant towns.

"Yes, I want them all cleared out!"
She declared with something like passion,
And maybe she thought
"It will be as it used to be
When the books are gone."
So we ferried them all away,
Then she gave us tea
On the crochetted cloth
And mused over snaps of the children
While we stroked the cat,
At last, with puzzled goodbye,
Saw us off at the gate.

And we never knew what she found there
When it was swept and garnished again
When it was clean and bare and empty
And she could call it her own;
Was it peace and a devil exorcised?
Or questions echoing on,
The ghostly enemy answer
Still not known?

July 1971.

* A pleonastic play on words. Indeed Everyman's (which now sell for £3 or £4 each but seldom more) were once so ubiquitous that there is a persistent legend in the trade that after the war, possibly in the early 1950s a large group of British (or London) dealers tried to make them less common by each dumping or pulping huge quantities of these attractive little books. One imagines a bunch of dealers in Burberries and British Warms convening in a misty Essex field and solemnly dumping the books into a a great pit dug for the purpose. Later returning to London in their Dormobiles, Bedfords and shooting brakes. A scene from a Robert Hamer movie.

** I am now assured by Eclectabooks that this is Alfred Williams (1877 – April 1930) a poet who lived in the vicinity of Swindon, UK. He was almost entirely self taught, producing his most famous work, 'Life in a Railway Factory' (1915), at night after completing a gruelling days work in the railway factories. He was nicknamed The Hammerman poet.