RARE BOOK GUIDE - THE RUNNERS, THE RIDERS & THE ODDS
07 June 2009
Fortune Press - Amis & Larkin etc.,
Kingsley Amis, BRIGHT NOVEMBER. (1947 ) £400 - £2,000
Philip Larkin, THE NORTH SHIP. (1945 ) £750 - £1,500
‘ The Fortune Press ‘ , Philip Larkin complained in 1945, ‘ is only a yelping-ground for incompetents who can’t get a hearing elsewhere’ . At the time Larkin had just posted his novel Jill to the owner of the Fortune Press, R.A.Caton, who was also preparing to bring out his debut collection of poems, The North Ship. The protracted publication of both books and the censorship of Jill by Caton ( himself, ironically, a publisher of mild homosexual porn ) kept their author in a fury of irritation and frustration for years —a state of mind which was soon to be shared by his friend Kingsley Amis, whose own first slim volume, Bright November was to be taken on by Caton. Both men concocted private, long-running jokes about Caton, and according to Larkin, Amis never lost an opportunity of introducing the seedy publisher into his novels, sometimes under a thinly disguised pseudonym.
This particularly pair of ‘ incompetents ‘ were, of course anything but, and when their fame grew Bright November and The North Ship became legendary rarities -- almost as scarce, and equally desirable, as the first volumes of poetry by Graham Greene and William Golding. At present there are only three firsts of The North Ship on ABE and eleven of Bright November. Prices range ridiculously for similar copies of the same edition.
But seekers after desirable modern firsts from the Fortune Press don’t have to spend hundreds or indeed look too far for other worthy poets. Arguably, Caton published more debut volumes by good poets than just about any other publisher in the UK. And considering ( as far as we know, for Caton was famously secretive ) that he operated alone ( or with minimal assistance ) from a damp and chaotic basement storeroom in Belgravia —this was an astonishing achievement. Having begun in 1925 as the vanity publisher of C Day Lewis’s 'Beechen Vigil'*, which after being peddled around Oxford, made its author a small profit, Caton by 1939 had published some of the earliest work by Lawrence Durrell, was taking on a raft of very talented poets of the thirties, including Gavin Ewart, Roy Fuller and Julian Symons, before moving on to such Neo-Romantics as Henry Treece, Nicholas Moore, Francis Scarfe, Tambimuttu, and Drummond Allison. In all, according to his bibliographer Timothy D’Arch Smith, he published more than 600 books between 1924, when he set up his press, and the late sixties, when he finally shut up shop. He died in 1971.
Of the Fortune Press poets most have disappeared into obscurity. Not surprisingly, when most were true ‘ incompetents ‘---wannabe poets with no discernable talent. Many were eccentrics; one or two achieved a dubious notoriety. For instance, Sir Anthony de Hoghton, a scion of that Catholic Lancashire family who owned that romantic ruin Hoghton Tower, which you pass on the train going to Blackburn, persuaded Mark Boxer to publish a poem that began ‘ God’s in His garage, cranking up his Bentley ‘in a Cambridge student magazine— for which Boxer was expelled for blasphemy . In the end, it is said, de Hoghton ended up as a beggar on the streets on London.
Neither Amis nor Larkin received a penny for their work , but Caton did manage to recompense a few ( in 'Inside the Forties' Derek Stanford, who gives a graphic description of his dealings with the publisher, claimed to be one of the lucky ones ). Many were happy to pay Caton for the thrill of seeing their poems in print . In return Caton, by listing his authors and their works on the backs of each dust jacket, made his customers feel as valued as any of the poets of the more eminent houses, such as Faber. At the same time he cut corners to keep down costs . Apparently, in the early years of the war, he stockpiled a huge amount of cheap binding cloth of various colours and textures, which accounts for the variety of bindings you can find. In the war years and for some time afterwards bindings were generally shoddy, as in my copy of Patterns and Poems by Patrick Tudor –Owen, and Howard Sergeant’s anthology, For Those who Are Alive ( where the glue seems to have seeped through the cloth ), In contrast, by the fifties, when presumably Caton had become more prosperous and could afford good binding material) you seen some fancy bindings. For instance, some copies of Girls and Stations (1952), the fifth Fortune Press title by Terence Greenidge, the Oxford friend of Waugh, and fellow member of the Hypocrites Club , have, for some reason, mock alligator skin bindings, while copies of Raymond Tong’s Angry Decade (1951) are bound to the highest commercial standards. Incidentally, it was in a copy of the latter title that I was delighted to find a specimen of Caton’s handwriting on a review slip.
Fifty or sixty years on, most of the early Fortune Press authors are dead . Perhaps the longest lived at 95 was Hindu poetic superstar Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan , the sought after English translation of whose classic, The House of Wine, was published by Caton in 1950. Another who died recently was poet-pugilist Vernon Scannell, who famously listed ‘ hating Tories ‘as one of his hobbies in Who’s Who. When prompted by a pint in his Otley local he recalled Caton as ‘ a slightly sinister old boy, a kind of Graham Greene character ‘.Derek Stanford died recently, but still alive at 89 is Margaret Crosland, the biographer of the Marquis de Sade, Edith Piaf and Colette, who sixty years later followed up her Strange Tempe of 1946 with a further collection of poems. When I interviewed her she could still remember visiting Caton in his lair. ‘ He looked like a second-rate accountant, wearing the traditional dirty raincoat, on his way to a sex shop ‘.
As I said, there’s some good poetry out there .If most Fortune Press books rarely fetch more than a tenner, the highlights do much better. Titles to look out for are Poems and Songs (1939 ) by Gavin Ewart ---the first book by this witty one-time ad man and lithograph salesman, who made his debut in New Verse while still a public schoolboy with the scandalous ‘Phallus in Wonderland’. Poems and Songs is not that rare and most copies can be had for well under £100 . However, for some reason or other, one American bookseller wants $175 for his ordinary copy, whereas for a further $25 another American will sell you David Gascoyn
e’s own signed copy. Also worth having is Roy Fuller’s debut Poems (1940). Through ABE you can choose either an ex library wreck with 2 pages missing for 5 quid or a choice copy contain a postcard from Fuller to Cyril Connolly referring to Caton. It might be worth the extra cash to learn what Fuller actually thought of little Reg. (Caton pictured left.)
More extravagantly priced is a copy of Dylan Thomas Poems of 1934 which Caton cheekily reissued in 1942 at the height of Dylan’s fame—a bit of a coup this, but Caton was nothing if not an opportunist. The princely sum of $1467 is demanded for this, presumably because the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive has inscribed it to Mary and Herman Peschmann ( who they, ed ? ). But the loudest guffaws should be reserved for copies of Terence Greenidge’s Girls and Stations. Either the Waugh connection or the Betjeman foreword, or the fact that the author’s first Fortune Press title, The Magnificent (1933) was ordered to be destroyed for obscene libel , must be responsible for two dealers demanding the same sum of $203.81for their jacketless copies. Lastly, if you really insist on jackets and don’t mind being nagged, there’s a bookseller in Margate who will for £25 sell you a copy of 'Patrick Freed' by composer and Busoni scholar Terence Gervais White ‘ in a very good minus d/w of the SCARCE first edition. Copies in d/w are VERY SCARCE ‘. Yes, we heard you the first time, dude... (R.M. Healey)
* Still oddly ubiquitous, although now hard to find for much less than a £100. At one point I had 3 copies. Only 11 offered on ABE this week...and by the way there is Tim D'Arch Smith's excellent bibliography of the press (Rota 1983) with more good info on the life and foibles of the enigmatic Caton. At one point we (Any Amount) had a station wagon full of Fortune Press, now almost all gone, including multiples of jacketless North Ships and many by Aubrey Fowkes (boy does he sell) under his various names. They came from the manse (near Edinburgh) of the 1970s 'Fanny Hill' publisher whose name escapes me...(ed.)