30 October 2009

At an Alcoholics Anonymous auction...

I am currently in the USA on a break and buying a few books. Last week I went to an auction at the excellent Pacific Book Auctions in San Francisco. I seldom go to auctions anymore but I expected to run into a few old faces. Curiously, although I viewed the books for an hour or more on the morning of the sale, I was the only person there. When the auction started 2 more people showed up, one keenish buyer of standard high spot modern firsts, the other a pleasant but cautious book dealer I had seen at fairs -he bought nothing. The sale was in 3 parts- general books of which about a third were bought in (either no interest or too ambitious reserves) the second a bunch of Easton Press Books which sold modestly but with no passed over lots--some to a fourth person attending just for these slightly meretricious (to a British eye) items.

Two other people showed up but appeared to do little or no bidding. Andrew from Adobe books came by and was saluted by the auctioneer and myself-he bought nothing and left after 5 minutes. I am growing to like these Easton books in their gilt decorated reconstituted leather bindings (many can still be bought on line from Easton themselves-- a general pic of their 'classics' below.) The signed books are quite desirable especially as they produced books signed by the likes of George Carlin, B.B. King, Andrea Bocelli, George Jones, Stanley Kramer, Elie Wiesel, John Kerry, V.S. Naipaul etc., Some are surprisingly valuable give that most are limited to at least a 1000 signed copies. They love them on Ebay and they sell quite well in England where they are less commonly seen.

The last section was a serious Alcoholics Anonymous collection apparently shipped over from Europe in its entirety. For this the room emptied and a well dressed couple appeared who I took to be high rolling A. A. punters. They bought nothing. I also bought nothing--no one else was there, there were more staff than attendees. All business was from phone bidders, live bidders over the net (bids announced with a digitalised bell) and bids left with the auctioneers. All buyers were anonymous. The old days of crowded auctions and joshing camaraderie are dead. I bought three books in the earlier part of the sale but with 20% commission and 9.5% local tax I shall be hard pushed to make a profit worth shouting about.

The A.A. books went pretty well considering the economic climate [a sober account to follow...but one Big Book, a 6th printing from 1944, signed by the 3 founders made a stonking $27000]

27 October 2009

Laughing Torso / A Bohemian Word Cloud

I was going to do something on Nina Hamnett's 'Laughing Torso' which has a splendid cover which cannot be found on the web and I left my copy at home. Will scan in on return. Nina Hamnett (1890 – 1956) was a Welsh artist, writer and artist's model (that's her by Modigliani.) She became known as the Queen of Bohemia and wrote this memoir in 1932. Aleister Crowley unsuccessfully sued her and the publisher for libel over allegations of Black Magic made in the book and it became a best seller. The Great Beast's magickal activities are also dealt with in Betty May's more valuable Tiger Woman another great bohemian memoir (1929). Nice jacketed copies of 'Torso' can fetch £100 and the limited edition £150+. The 'torso' refers to a sculpture of her by Gaudier Brzeska. She was close to Modigliani and this reminiscence of him gives a flavour of the work, Nina is sitting alone in a Parisian cafe:
"Suddenly the door opened and in came a man with a roll of newspaper under his arm. He wore a black hat and corduroy suit. He had curly black hair and brown eyes and was very good looking. He came straight up to me and said, pointing to his chest, ‘Je suis Modigliani, Juif, Jew,’ unrolled his newspaper, and produced some drawings. He said, ‘Cinq francs.' They were very curious and interesting, long heads and pupil-less eyes. I thought them very beautiful. ...I gave him five francs and chose one of a head in pencil. He sat down and we tried to understand each other and I said that I knew Epstein and we got on very well, although I could not understand much of what he said. He used to drink a great deal of wine and absinthe when he could afford it. Picasso and the really good artists thought him very talented and bought his works but the majority of people in the Quarter thought of him only as a perfect nuisance and told me that I was wasting my money..."
The last sentence shows how wrong some people can be - those drawings are now worth 100,000 times the price that Nina paid... The book, as Robert Scholes says in his splendid 'Paradoxy of Modernism', offers us 'glimpses of the bohemian core of Modernism and ...perspectives on the roles open to women in that dark center of Modernist art.' He also looks at the lives of the spirited Kiki (of Montparnasse) and the elusive Beatrice Hastings who wrote under at least 16 pseudonyms.

In my research in GoogleBooks (these dudes are bringing in a renaissance of scholarship and learning) I came across a sort of snapshot summary of the text of 'Laughing Torso' which they call 'Common terms and phrases' but is otherwise known as a 'word cloud.' Edited down a little it gives an impressionistic summary of all things boho-- espadrilles are there and only the berets are missing:-
Absinthe accordion Aleister Crowley Arthur Rimbaud Augustus John Bal Musettes beautiful black hat bottles Brancusi cafe Calvados Camden Town champagne Chelsea Cocteau Countess Cubist danced delighted Diaghilev Dieppe dined dinner Dirty Dick's drank drawings dressed drink Eiffel Tower Erik Satie espadrilles Fitzroy Square Fitzroy Street Foujita francs Gare Montparnasse Gertrude Stein girl Golf Juan guitar Henri Rousseau Horace Cole Iris Tree James Joyce Jean Cocteau Latin Quarter Les Halles Les Six lunch Luxembourg Gardens Modigliani Montmartre Montparnasse myself Nancy Cunard Newhaven night Omega Workshops Osbert Sitwell Oscar Wilde painted painter Paris Paul Verlaine Prefecture of Police restaurant Roger Fry Rotonde Sickert Stravinsky studio Vermouth wife wine woman wonderful Wyndham Lewis young

24 October 2009

The Books of Brin

In an earlier posting Google Books -A Library to Last Forever I suggested that Google so-founder Sergey Brin had accumulated well over 15,000 real books by the time he was 26. He still has a site up from his Stanford days with them all listed - My Favorite Books - a strange but just about credible collection with a heavy emphasis on SF and fantasy fiction although almost all the world's classics are there from Aeschylus to Xenophon. There's Crowley and Huxley, Le Fanu and Lovecraft, Deepak Chopra, most of the Booker authors and an unusual amount of female writers (some romantic or sword and sorcery) for a mere male to possess. I had a vague suspicion that these were not books read by him or even owned by him. How could the poisonous 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' be a favourite book, let alone co-exist with Chris Rock's 'The Bitch Factor' ? Through some data mining aided by Google I ascertained that indeed these were not Sergey's books, but part of an early web search project done while he was at Stanford. Below is the garage in nearby Menlo Park where Google was born and where I had imagined he kept these books.

Sergey Brin did not possess 15000 books. In 1996/ 1997 he and 3 other Stanford guys were working on something called 'Dual Iterative Pattern Relation Expansion (DIPRE)'. As they put it
We begin with a small seed set of (author, title) pairs (in tests we used a set of just five pairs). Then we find all occurrences of those books on the Web (an occurrence of a book is the appearance of the title and author in close proximity on the same Web page). From these occurrences we recognize patterns for the citations of books. Then we search the Web for these patterns and find new books. We can then take these books, find all their occurrences, and from those generate more patterns. We can use these new patterns to find more books, and so forth. Eventually, we will obtain a large list of books and patterns for finding them.
They chose 5 books - Isaac Asimov's Robots of Dawn, David Brin's Startide Rising, James Gleick's Chaos: A New Science, Shakespeare's 'Comedy of Errors' and Dickens's 'Great Expectations'. Each book seems significant in hindsight--and it is likely these data miners in the dawn had great expectations. Anyway it was only the two science fiction books which produced usable patterns (3) and after searching 5 million web pages for these two they found 105 patterns…eventually adding the word 'books' they produced 15,527 titles "with very little bogus data." These are the books listed on the web as 'Sergey Brin's favourite books.' Books were useful for establishing the search code as the author and the title are often close together. To a civilian this stuff is mostly impenetrable but it seems what they were doing was laying the foundations for the code used by Google, truly a licence to print money (so much that he is now contemplating launching a space ship...)

Reading this list without knowing the above it had seemed a strange and wondrous bunch of books. He even had a title that someone asked for this morning - D.E. Harding's mystical classic 'On Having No Head.' It is not impossible for a young person to accumulate 15000 books--if he or she buys 30 books a week from age 15 to 25 and has somewhere to put them they can achieve it with ease. Regular attendance at library sales will help. I have seen such collections, the novelist Hanif Kureishi who used to live near our shop in the early 1980s had about 10,000 paperbacks and he was not yet thirty. I knew a teenage dealer with 20000 books in a storage unit in the unpromising London suburb of Neasden. So it was entirely credible Brin, a highly educated student, could have this quantity of books.

I first became suspicious when I came across books on the list by the obscure 90s writer Dollie Radford. I knew her books because recently we bought some of her son's library from a relation-- he had been a minor poet and a fringe Bloomsbury player (that's him below picnicking with handsome Rupert Brooke and RB's inamorata Noel Olivier and Virginia Woolf in a fetching headscarf.) What was Sergey doing reading Dollie? When I googled the pair of them all was explained. He actually mentions Dollie in one of his papers 'Extracting Patterns and Relations from the World Wide Web' -noting that 'one of the most surprising results was finding books which were not listed in major online sources such as 'The Young Gardener's Kalendar by Dollie Radford [Rad04]…'

23 October 2009

Collecting John Piper

Frances Spalding’s long awaited twin biography of John and Myfanwy Piper is being reprinted less than a month after its appearance. This is something almost unheard of in the small world of art history books. So either there is currently a Piper resurgence, or the OUP has badly underestimated the demand, or both. Or perhaps people want to discover more about the hitherto neglected Myfanwy, who among things, was Betjeman’s muse. But there is no doubt that John Piper has some incredibly dedicated fans. The Net is full of them. One of the most devoted is Ken Hayes, whose John Piper site is admirably comprehensive.

People who can’t afford paintings by Piper tend to collect the books written, designed or illustrated by him. I’ve already dealt with the Shell Guides series in an earlier blog, but there are so many other Piper items worth collecting. Some are very obscure and very expensive indeed. Take his first book, published when he was just 18-- The Wind in the Trees. I’ve never seen a copy of this book of verse which Piper’s dad got the Horseshoe Publishing Company of Bristol to bring out in 1921. Even Hayes admits to not having found a copy. Presumably they exist somewhere, or is this another et tu Healy situation ?

Piper’s second slim volume, The Gaudy Saint, which appeared 3 years later from the same publisher, is only slightly less scarce. Blackwell’s have a copy at a hefty $942. Then in 1925 Piper senior paid the Curwen Press to publish his memoirs. Sixty-three Not Out would be unremarkable without the 19 tiny vignettes by the twenty-two year old artist, by then planning to leave his post as a clerk in his father’s law firm for art school. About 20 years ago I actually found a copy marked at £10 in the basement of a shop in Cecil Court ( I forget which one ), but rejected it as a bit peripheral. What an idiot I was! I’ve never seen another copy since, but Maggs now have one priced at $707. Drat it !

Brighton Aquatints (1939), Piper’s first important book, is not seriously scarce but is always sought after. There is a tale that Betjeman coloured in some of the aquatints, but I’ve never actually seen a coloured version. Incidentally, Piper also contributed an aquatint as a frontispiece to S John Woods excellent John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs (1955) and this too I have seen coloured in, though it looks better uncoloured. Myfanwy once gave me one of these prints from a pile hanging around at Henley Bottom Farmhouse after Piper’s death. A few years earlier she had very kindly presented me with a whole run in mint condition of the incredibly scarce Axis, the avant garde art magazine she had edited in the thirties. For this I will be eternally grateful. I would never have been able to afford such a treasure otherwise.

Another great scarcity is Colour in the English Country House, which appears in the bibliographies, but which few, including myself, have seen. It’s possibly the sort of booklet that might have been discarded with annual spring-cleanings and could be worth having if it turned up in a box of books somewhere. Most other Pipers are nothing like as rare. Books with wrapper designs by him shout out Piper and are common enough, as are books containing his illustrated. Piper’s own title in the Britain in Pictures series, British Romantic Artists, comes up all the time. On ABE at present there are 62 copies, all hovering around £6- £20, but for some reason one chancer in Santa Barbara ( about as far away from Piper country as you can be ) has stuck a price of $250 on a copy. The thing doesn’t seem to have an original Piper abstract or postcards from Betjeman loosely inserted. It’s just a perfectly ordinary copy of a common book in a standard wrapper printed with printer’s ink, rather than painted by Piper himself in an idle moment. But on this particular subject, Piper did on one occasion reproduce in ink the cover of his Buildings and Prospects for a friend who had lost the wrapper of his own copy. Now that would be a book to covet. [R.M. Healey]

Thanks Robin. I sympathise with your annoyance at having let go 63 Not Out ('a bit peripheral'). I have done this with other books and regretted it and gone back only to find "the swifter glove of another hunter" has nabbed the book (Javier Marias.) Hells, bells and buckets of blood! A trivial point about Piper is that sartorially he was similar to Anthony Powell - they both wore non v-neck pull overs over shirt and tie with the tie plumping out the at top of the pullover like a second Adam's apple - to me it tends to signify the chap will not put up with any nonsense. James Lees Milne also affected this style (are there others?) I guess it's an upper class thing and you seldom see it anymore. I am not sure if Piper is a long term investment and whether succeeding generations will discover his art. Given the enthusiasm with which his bio has been received he is probably sound. Because he has never been trendy it is unlikely that he will go out of style...

Below is a splendid Piper painting - Gordale Scar, Yorkshire, 1943.

20 October 2009

Diary of a Nobody (1892)

George Grossmith and Weedon Grossmith. THE DIARY OF A NOBODY. J.W. Arrowsmith, Bristol, and Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent and Co. Limited, London. 1892.

Current Selling Prices
$300-$600 /£200-£400

An English comic novel written by George Grossmith and his brother Weedon Grossmith with illustrations by Weedon, it first appeared in the magazine Punch in 1888 – 89, and came out in book form in 1892. The diary is that of Mr. Charles Pooter, a city clerk of lower middle-class status but significant social aspirations, living in Upper Holloway. Other characters include his wife Carrie (Caroline), his raffish and slangy son Lupin, his friends Mr Cummings and Mr Gowing (jokes about coming and going), and Lupin's unsuitable fiancĂ©e, Daisy Mutlar. The humour derives from Pooter's unconscious gaffes, his suburban social pretensions and self-importance, also the many snubs he receives from those he considers socially inferior, such as tradesmen. Pathos (and bathos) is mixed in with the humour--e.g. when Pooter attends the Mansion House Ball (the highest point of his social ambitions) he is distressed to find his name omitted from a long list of guests published in the "society" column of the Blackfriars Bi-weekly News. A letter of complaint results in him and his wife being listed as Mr. and Mrs. Potter, which further enrages him, leading to a correction in the paper which then lists him as Mr. Pewter.

The supreme English comic classic, still near the top of ubiquitous 'best ever book' polls. As Lord Rosebery said "I regard any bedroom I occupy as unfurnished without a copy." It ranks with right up there with Jerome's K. Jerome's Three Men In A Boat, Waugh's Scoop, 'England their England' 'At Swim Two Birds' and the novels of Wodehouse. Jon Wilde wrote in 'The Guardian' about the 2007 documentary 'The Real Mr Pooter'- there may be novels that are more widely loved than Diary Of A Nobody, but surely none more deeply loved… A fair few acquaintances of mine unashamedly admit that they cannot seriously consider a friendship with anyone who does not find the novel uproariously funny.' He goes on to mention other Pooterish characters--Adrian Mole, Bridget Jones, Captain Mainwaring, Victor Meldrew, Alan Partridge, David Brent, Peep Show's Mark Corrigan. He neglects to mention Widmerpool, a successful Pooter (if that's possible.) Oddly enough Arthur Lowe who played Captain Mainwaring played Pooter in a radio adaptation (an almost definitive performance.) The big point that JW makes is that if you don't find it funny 'it almost certainly means that you're self-deluded and humourless enough to be considered Pooterish.'

VALUE? Not especially high but more that 'Three Men in a Boat' which was also published by Arrowsmith three years earlier (you want the address as 'Quay Street' not '11 Quay Street'). Very decent copies should not cost more than £300, Adrian Harrington currently has a decent copy with a signed photo of Weedon Grossmith for £475. It might be more if it was George Grossmith (left) - famous in his day for performing his own comic piano sketches and songs and creating a series of memorable characters in the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan; it is said he was the most popular British solo performer of the 1890s. Julie Burchill nominating 'Diary' as her favourite book notes that he also found the time to dally with morphine, possibly as a way of dealing with stage-fright.

Browsing this masterpiece the other day it occurred to me that blogs, with a few exceptions, are basically 'diaries of nobodies' and the struggle of man with his insignificance as the Grossmith freres discovered is both a comic and a tragic matter. John Fowles in 'The Aristos' talks of this struggle (with what he calls 'the nemo') as the supreme source of anguish and suggests the ways of challenging the 'nemo' used by modern man--'I build up a unique persona, I defy the mass. I am the bohemian, the dandy, the outsider, the hippy...' Portentously he adds '...Oswald killed President Kennedy in order to kill his real enemy: his nemo.' I guess if he was still around he would say that people who go on reality TV shows are confronting their nemos… Will deal with this strange work 'The Aristos' (Cape 1964) at some point--its value as a first is not insignificant.

18 October 2009

Google Books -'A Library to Last Forever'

Google co-founder Sergey Brin was an 'op-ed' contributor to the New York Times last week. An interesting article -part puff and part manifesto. It was called 'A Library to Last Forever' -the view from Mountain View as it were. He has so far got the text of 10 million books, many over 100 years old and well out of copyright, up on Google Books and wants to get millions more, especially books post 1923 where US copyright takes hold (i.e. books that are no longer in the public domain.) A good well reasoned article rejecting ideas of a monopoly - at one point he writes - ' I wish there were a hundred services with which I could easily look at… a book; it would have saved me a lot of time, and it would have spared Google a tremendous amount of effort.'

The NYT readers comments are interesting--some outraged at this attempt to sequester the worlds wisdom and knowledge, many profoundly grateful (especially writers and researchers) some worried about the future of books and Brin's motives. One alarmist called Google 'Shiva the Destroyer' another 'A Trojan Horse' ("Beware of Google bearing gifts.") One angry chap compared the Google project to 'agribusiness' - an attempt to own the rights to all books ever published. Over half were positive, one guy urged them to 'soldier' on - 'we will cover your back.' A lot of optimists thought the Library of Congress should be doing this--nobody seemed to mention the cost of digitising books or the vastness of Google's investment ( surely a billion dollars or more -page turners, copyright lawyers, endowments, researchers, experts, academics, programmers, equipment etc.,) As Brin says, anybody can do it (and quite a few have, but not it such a monumental way) but due to their AdWords revenues they can pay for it and it will be money well spent for them and hopefully for us.

He talks of his legal tussles with the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers over the project. '…while we have had disagreements, we have a common goal — to unlock the wisdom held in the enormous number of out-of-print books, while fairly compensating the rights holders. As a result, we were able to work together to devise a settlement that accomplishes our shared vision. While this settlement is a win-win for authors, publishers and Google, the real winners are the readers who will now have access to a greatly expanded world of books.' Good stuff, but the battle is not nearly over and the motives of large, rich companies are often suspect. In the new age of Obama's America it would be nice to think these guys could be idealists, even visionaries, who have made enough money to allow them to see beyond the mundanities that motivate corporate man (money and power). Time will tell, but the sheer scale of their ambition is formidable.

In arguing the need to preserve texts digitally Brin talks about how libraries have been devastated over time by fire and floods (the library at Alexandria burned three times, in 48 B.C., A.D. 273 and A.D. 640, the L of C lost two-thirds of its collection in a fire in 1851 etc.,) While he was at Stanford in 1998, floods destroyed tens of thousands of books and a similar flood had happened there just 20 years prior. He notes laconically 'you could read about it in 'The Stanford-Lockheed Meyer Library Flood Report', published in 1980, but this book itself is no longer available.' It is on the subject of freedom and easy and open access to books that he fires his best shot:

"More important, even if our cultural heritage stays intact in the world’s foremost libraries, it is effectively lost if no one can access it easily."

Some NYT comments said you could order all the books you need through Inter library loans, but this is can be a cumbersome method and is only available for some books in some countries. Buying out of print books ('orphans' in googlespeak) from book dealers has a great deal to be said for it but money is sometimes tight and many books are too rare to be affordable or even to be available. As a dealer I see the scheme opening up the market rather than harming it. New collectors, readers and book enthusiasts will be created by this bold 'Forever' project - especially among the under thirty crowd, who are now seldom seen in bookshops or at bookfairs; those born after the year of the Jubilee and Punk (1977) i.e. the post-literate generation. Sergey was four at the time but by the time he was 26 he had accumulated well over 15,000 real books...of which more soon.

Below pic of Basra University Central Library: books destroyed by fire - June 2003

15 October 2009

Jane Austen. Emma (1816)

[ Jane Austen.] EMMA. A novel. In Three Volumes. By the author of "Pride and Prejudice" &c. &c. John Murray, London 1816.

Current Selling Prices
$8000-$30000 /£5000-£20000

I am briefly revisiting' Emma' as there is a new BBC series with the handsome actor Romola Garai. Also a mediocre copy made $8,400 in New York last month possibly indicative of a flatter Janeite market. The auctioneer notes '...in keeping with Murray's stated views on edition sizes, 2000 copies were printed. Emma is also the only one of Jane Austen's novels to bear a dedication (to the Prince Regent)' . The lightest of her works and often cited as her most accomplished, fulfilling, as it does, her own formula for a successful novel - '3 or 4 families in a country village..the very thing to work on.' Many editions are wanted apart from the expensive 3 decker first, including the still valuable one volume Bentley (1833) fancy illustrated editions (Hugh Thomsom, Chris Hammond) Avalon Society, Limited Editions Club, Folio, Easton etc., Possibly the most wanted and easiest assimilated book of the divine Jane. A bibliographic warning note comes from Geoffrey Keynes:
'...The collation of the first volume of Emma is peculiar in that the first sheet consisted only of the title-page and the dedication to the Prince Regent, while the half-title was printed on the last leaf, which would otherwise have been blank. If the binder has omitted to transfer the half-title to the beginning of the volume, it will appear, at first sight, to be imperfect.'
Strictly speaking the half-title should be at the back of the book to be in its correct position.

The novel has such a strong and true storyline that it easily transposed into an acclaimed movie set in a modern US high school in Beverly Hills ('Clueless.' ) Also filmed 3 other times and done on TV about once a decade. There is rumour of a Bollywood version. As noted 2000 copies of the 1816 first were printed -- it is uncommon to find the half titles and final blanks still present as it is more often rebound in leather lacking these.

VALUE? Has twice made £25,000 at auction this century, both times in original boards (usually slightly repaired/ restored.) A 'very fine' copy bound in 'half , calf gilt, extremities worn' made $24000 in 2002. Recently it has made as little as £5000 several times with a few disappointing 'buy-ins' at carriage trade auctions--usually for less than limpid examples. A decent copy lacking half titles made $11,400 early in 2009 in NY. It can be found in handsomely bound state at most high end book fairs and is not especially scarce. The Bentley one volume 1833 edition can make well over £500; people try to make sets of the Bentley editions which complete can go for several thousand pounds. Jane Austen books in reprint often attract buffoon like over pricing. One chancer in Atlantic City has a whole series of basically old and used turn of the century pocket editions, none worth more than $20, at $200 to $400. They don't appear to ever sell so there are pages of them on the net with other dealers following his witless lead -once again belying Blake's maxim that a fool will persist in his folly until he becomes wise. William Blake could never have foreseen the imbecility of the internet bookseller. What possibly happens, and this is true of many manic over pricers, is that very occasionally some deluded punter buys one of their books thus justifying the whole enterprise.

Sets of Austen are the most rebound of all sets in history. The reason is that unless you put an absolute 'mind at the end of its tether' price on them, they will always sell. They make the perfect gift, prize, reward or inducement. Hard to find a decent set of 19th century (albeit late) leather bindings for less than $1000. Modern 6 volume sets from Easton in a sort of spam leather can be had on ebay at between $300 and $500. Below is Gwynneth Paltrow as Emma - 'clever, pretty and self-satisfied...' That's Romola Garai above--actually in 'Daniel Deronda' but what the heck--one wonders if she would play her namesake if they adapted Ms Eliot's 1863 novel 'Romola'.

10 October 2009

Richard Carlile (1790 - 1843)


Current Selling Prices
$500-$700 /£350-£500

The rather muted publicity given to the bicentenary of Thomas Paine’s death this year reminds me of the interview I had with the late lamented maverick actor and film-maker Kenneth Griffith a few years ago. Lured to his large Victorian house in Barnsbury ostensibly by the promise of an introduction to his uniquely vast library of books and memorabilia on the Boer War, for much of the time I found myself being regaled with off the record tales, including a recollection of the time when leaders of the IRA were invited to tea and how Griffith’s film on Thomas Paine was deemed too radical to be broadcast.

The seriously inflammatory writings of the famous atheist and republican, born in Thetford in 1737, were banned by the British authorities from the start, but suppression was particularly draconian in the period of political unrest following Waterloo, when any publisher or bookseller who dealt in Paine’s writings, faced jail and bankruptcy. The publisher who stood out as Paine’s greatest champion in this era was Richard Carlile, a Devonian tinsmith who had turned to radical publishing in his mid twenties and from whose premises at 55, Fleet Street (‘The Temple of Reason’), a steady stream of seditious literature emerged for six or more years. Carlile, incidentally was the bookseller who somehow managed to obtain 180 copies of the first edition of Shelley’s audacious, privately printed , Queen Mab (1813)— a copy of which Rota wants £23,000 for.

Carlile ( 1790 – 1843 ) quite simply refused to be silenced and when he was carted off to Dorchester jail in 1819 he brazenly spent the next five years conducting his business from behind bars. As a political prisoner, rather than a common felon, he enjoyed, like Leigh Hunt before him, a measure of freedom and comfort. Although he had little time for flowery wallpaper and an ottoman, his ‘ Repository of Reason ‘ was comfily appointed with sink, bed, desk, odd bits of furniture, and the use of two servants to cook & clean. Carlile also took up vegetarianism while in jail and worked out with weights to keep himself fit. Naturally, he was left with plenty of time to edit his radical magazine, The Republican, which the jailers didn’t seemed to mind him doing, though apparently when he once misbehaved his frying pans were confiscated.

I’d been looking for something by Carlile when quite by chance I found it on the shelves of that funny little bookshop in Harmood St, Camden Town. This was volume one of Paine’s Political and Miscellaneous Works dated 1819, which was bound in a sort of suede decorated with an abstract pattern in pyrography which I like to think was done by a fellow political prisoner to pass away the hours. This was the book, an earlier edition of which, turned one of the Cato Street conspirators to thoughts of revolution in 1819. Two prefaces, both dated Dorchester Jail, November 1820---rather good propaganda this—were bound in with the sheets of my 1819 edition, and the book continued to be sold, at first by Carlile’s 'shrewish' wife Jane, then when she joined her husband in jail, by the dedicated ‘shopmen and women’ who to evade capture themselves operated at one time an ingenious self-service system ( ‘The Invisible Shopman’ ) which consisted of a clockwork apparatus that allowed customers to select the publication they required, which was duly dispensed to them via a series of chutes, flaps and pulleys, a bit like those vacuum tubes you used to find in old-fashioned department stores in the fifties.

There has always been a lustre of radical chic surrounding Carlile and his fellow radicals of the early 1820s, and anything bearing his name is sought after. Currently ABE has no copy of his Political and Miscellaneous Works, but the companion Theological Works, also of 1819, is there for $361 ( ‘A chance to own a piece of Britain’s history ‘, says the vendor, and he’s right ). Jarndyce has an eight page pamphlet by Carlile for an inflammatory $141 and another of 16 pages for $160. Other more substantial pamphlets can be had from the States, where Carlile is a truly big name, for $350 a pop. Most of these publications are all from his glamorous jail period. Later works, including his writings on freemasonry, are generally cheaper. [R.M. Healey]

Thanks Robin. Wise words as always. I remember Kenneth Griffith (obit 2006) from "Only Two Can Play' (one of a small group of movies featuring librarians--that's him right with Peter Sellers) and of course as the mad old curmudgeon in 'Four Weddings...' Wikipedia reveals he kept death threats from the Ulster Volunteers proudly displayed on his wall. I guess you saw them. The full title of his TV documentary was 'Thomas Paine, The Most Valuable Englishman Ever' --ambiguous and provocative at the same time. The Wiki entry also reveals that his parents during WW2 '...at his request gave him a leather-bound copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf: he later explained in interview that he wanted to understand what he was fighting against.' A good point--not everyone who buys Mein Kampf is a foaming fascist, just most of them. I have seen a few Carlile books in my time, some at the house of the late, great Paul Foot, but need a few more (and some 'Queen Mabs') for my customers. What happened to KG's books? That would have been a useful house call!

08 October 2009

Books for War, Books for Soldiers

I found this picture mentioned peripherally on a tweet from the redoubtable book blog Book Patrol coming out of Seattle, the caffeine capital of the world. It shows the results of a book drive in World War One--bundles of books on the steps of New York Public library. The actual poster urging people to bring books to libraries "for our men in camp and 'over there'" is hanging in the background- a jumbo size version. It is by Charles Buckles Falls and came out of a poster project at the Division of Pictorial Publicity, part of the Committee on Public Information; the campaign was lead by Charles Dana Gibson, the creator of of the Gibson Girl image and those charming large white illustrated books (which are always worth less than you would think.) The poster seems to sell for several hundred dollars and giclee repros for about a $100 if a good size.

There was also a move in England during WW1 to get citizens to donate books for the war effort. These were not for the soldiers who were busy reading cheap copies of fiction by Buchan, Sapper and Ian Hay; because of a paper shortage the books were pulped. I have heard that this is one of the reasons that Victorian three volume novels ('three deckers') are so rare. In 1914 a three decker novel was like a Betamax video is in 2009 - obsolete, vieux jeu and space intensive. I have heard dealers speculate about this and it may be a myth - pulp fiction, you might say.

Do soldiers still need books? Did they have campaigns like this in WW2, Vietnam or the Gulf War? And when the books go to war (like all the books on the NY Public library steps) how many make it back? Some do, I know, because I have bought them. Typically they come back somewhat the worse for wear. One thinks of stories of soldiers carrying books in vest pockets (usually bibles) that saved their life by stopping a bullet ('bullet hole through middle of book else fine...')