28 December 2011

Alastair (Count Hans-Henning von Voigt 1887-1969)

An illustrator whose real name was Count Hans-Henning von Voigt, but who published under the pseudonym Alastair. Born in 1887, he was a very late convert to symbolism , adopting in the twenties a decorative style heavily indebted to Beardsley years after the artist had died. He (not surprisingly ) illustrated Wilde and Pater , but also Frank Wedekind, the expressionist playwright whose sexually explicit plays scandalised the Weimer Republic. Movie buffs now admire him because he illustrated Wedekind’s Lulu, who was immortalised in Pabst’s film of the same name starring the exquisite Louise Brooks; Goths worship him (see their websites) because they see him as an ideological fellow traveller.

Anecdotes about his outrageous behaviour abound. When Gabriele Annunzio met him in 1914 he was dressed in priestly blue brocade robes performing ‘gothic dances‘ around a gilded unicorn. Thirteen years later the poet and publisher Caresse Crosby describes her first meeting with him:
"... a blackamoor ushered us into a room where their was a black piano with a single candle burning on it. Soon Alastair himself appeared in the doorway in a white satin suit; he bowed, did a flying split and slid across the polished floor to stop at my feet, where he looked and said, “Ah, Mrs Crosby !“.

Soon afterwards he began what would become a fruitful relationship with Crosby and her husband Harry, who were about to launch the Black Sun Press. The twenties was the heyday of Alastair. His debut was a 1920 edition of Wilde’s The Sphinx, for which he contributed ten remarkable black and turquoise illustrations. For this you might expect to cough up around $800. This was followed by a commission from high class Munich publisher Georg Muller, who asked him to illustrate the two sumptuous posthumous limited edition volumes of Wedekind’s two Lulu plays, Erdgeist and Pandora’s Box, which duly appeared in 1921. Although some films based on the Lulu character had already been made by this date, it is likely that the producers of the Pabst movie of 1927 had Alistair’s iconic depiction of Lulu in mind when they cast the gamine Louise Brooks in the title role. Because of this link, the two ‘Lulu‘ volumes are in great demand from cineastes, especially members of the Louise Brooks Society. My own copies (which are, incidentally, up for grabs) have their boards hand-blocked in a black, green and red honey-bee cell pattern and 24 extraordinary full page plates in black and red showing the artist operating in full Beardsley mode.

Although these two volumes are among the most coveted of Alastair’s productions there were further triumphs to come. The nine illustrations which accompanied a French edition of Wilde’s Salome in 1922, are also in black and red. The fact that this was not a limited edition is reflected in the prices featured on ABE, which range from an amazingly reasonable $55 to a frankly silly $650. And if you lust for an original Alastair drawing for this book there is one available too on ABE at an eye-watering $17,500 !

In 1927 an edition of Walter Pater’s Sebastian van Storck included eight extraordinary plates by Alastair. The only copy currently on ABE has a superb cover which stylistically belongs at least 20 years earlier to the fag end of the aesthetic movement. In the same year, that first extraordinary meeting with Caresse Crosby developed into a fruitful partnership which resulted in at least four commissions. The first was to supply drawings for a limited edition of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher, which appeared in 1928 under the Editions Narcisse imprint. For this, Alastair seems to have abandoned his familiar style for a more conventional, though hardly naturalistic, one. There is a copy on ABE for $600. When, not long afterwards, the Black Sun Press began to produce its beautiful hand-crafted limited editions, Alastair was asked to illustrated Harry Crosby’s own volume of poems, Red Skeletons, which remains one of the most sought after of the Press’s titles. An edition limited to 100 of Wilde’s The Birthday of the Infanta , complete with glassine wrapper (pay up to $2,872), also appeared in 1928. Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses followed in 1929. With the tragic suicide of Harry Crosby in this year Alastair’s association with the Black Sun Press seems to have faded. Certainly, it would appear that the opportunities to contribute drawings in the styles he favoured were becoming fewer after this date.

The cheapest Alastair book on ABE is the 1931 Rarity Press edition of Manon Lescaut, of which there are several for sale at a bargain $4. The appearance of this title also signalled the end of his career as a book illustrator at the ripe old age of 48. He returned to drawing in 1964, but published little, if anything. Right up to his death in 1969 he remained true to himself. In his eighties he could be seen with powdered white face, bold black eyebrows, his black silk shoes poking out from the voluminous trousers. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. I have not seen a 'Red Skeletons' for a while, we sold a decent copy in 2001 for £800. Mad, bad Harry Crosby's finest... As for Alastair's drawings they occasionally show up in auction, last month a 1920 drawing 'Le Vampire' made 800 Euros at Sotheby's Paris and there are many other results at less than a 1000 Euros. A superb iconic drawing might make 5000 Euros. $17500 is stronging it but not unimaginable - Alastair probably has appeal to those laden with cash. For far less money you can occasionally buy drawings by our own 'gin and tonic' version of Alastair- the fabulous Beresford Egan, but that's another story (watch this space.)

20 December 2011

Give Puce a Chance

Forgive the pun, but it was suggested by the war theme of this (presumably) early 1914 pamphlet. Wyndham Lewis's Vorticist magazine BLAST (aka 'the puce monster') appeared in July of that year, the same month as war broke out and the pamphlet judging by the title appeared earlier that year. Was there a load of puce dye offloaded in London at that time, was it the colour of the moment? Is this really puce? The nearest dictionary (the big Bloomsbury) describes it as 'a brilliant purplish red colour.' Did Wyndham Lewis spot someone hawking the pamphlet in the street, it seems quite possible - even the typography is similar (at least the angular printing...)

The pamphlet (of which I have the cover only) is unknowable, no such title shows at WorldCat or Copac and the title page may have born a different title and possibly the name of an author. A colour that used to be seen in the 1990s 'hot pink' was similar to puce but rather cheap looking; the 1940s Elsa Schiaparelli colour 'shocking pink' is nearer to the mark but puce has a glamour all of its own. A fine copy of BLAST would be a thing to behold and I can think of two thousand reasons why I would like one. They usually turn up in distressing shape, as for the war pamphlet it is probably too rare to have real value - unless you found Lewis's or Pound's copy -- even Gaudier-Brzeska's, with a small sketch.

Below is a recently added and obviously modern puce publication - of which I know nothing, except it appears to be part of the enviable collection of kunstler Richard Prince.

16 December 2011

John Le Carré

John Le Carré. THE LOOKING-GLASS WAR. Heinemann, London 1965.

Current Selling Prices
$60+ /£40+

I was chuffed to see a copy of this book making £840 at Dominic Winter yesterday. It was described thus:
Author's presentation copy, inscribed to title: "John Le Carre aka David Cornwell - with best wishes! Cornwall 2nd March '03. P.S. I'm not sure that poor George Smiley c[oul]d handle the present mess - I'm rather glad he hung up his boots! J.L.C." The inscription refers to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Le Carre, of course, was no fan of Blair - feeling he was America's poodle ('minstrel') in the Iraq war and called for him to resign as quickly and 'elegantly' as possible. The inscription is surprisingly restrained in view of this. It belies the old 'Flatsigned' axiom that a plain signature is worth more than an inscription as copies of the book merely signed by Le Carré can be had for £100. The egregious inventor of the word wrote an entire guide book where every plain signature was priced 25% higher than an inscription. Thus if Nelson Mandela inscribed a book to someone he had known in jail it would be trumped by a plain signature...

Not a scarce book but hard to find in faultless condition as the spine tends to fade, sometimes badly. The preceding book The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is also not scarce but worth ten times more. The jacket on the Spy did not change in any way for the first dozen or so printings so marriages are not uncommon, a fine jacket often covering a slightly tired looking book. Le Carre is a generous signer and late works signed can be had for £20 or less, however I think he will prove a good investment in the long term. The latest star heavy movie was well received. In it Gary Oldman (formerly Sid Vicious and Joe Orton) played the stolid George Smiley. According to Huffington at the UK premiere of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Oldman asked Le Carré if he liked what he'd seen. "I'm chuffed to fuck," came the reply.

07 December 2011

Collecting Books on Magic 1

This can be an expensive area for collectors. Amateur magicians and historians of the subject are up against big name magicians like David Copperfield, Raymond Teller and Ricky Jay, who can afford the rarest and most desirable titles. However, those with limited means may build up a decent collection, provided they steer clear of certain glamorous titles, aren’t bothered too much about editions and condition, and avoid signed and extra illustrated items.

Two works should be on top of the rich collector’s wish list. One is Porta’s Magi Naturalis, which dates from 1558. As its title implies, it deals primarily with the wonderful properties of Nature, rather than deception and illusion. There are, for instance, sections on geology, optics, cooking, magnetism and gunpowder, but (alas) no illustrations. This is a truly early work, and was much reprinted in the original Latin; the English edition didn’t appear until 1658. It is extremely early and very rare, but the fact that the first English edition didn’t appear for a hundred years rather spoils its appeal for me. If you are lucky enough to find a copy of the first in Latin it will cost you a cool thousand pounds today, though the edition in English is more sought after. Equally glamorous is Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), a legendary work of myth-debunking from an enlightened JP who argued that the magic ascribed to witches could be reproduced by anyone with the skills and resources. Scot made many enemies in his defence of those who were persecuted as witches, and James I ordered the burning of all copies of the book in 1603. Few survived the flames and those that did could probably be numbered at below twenty.

Raymond Teller was pursuing a first of The Discoverie not too long ago and was overjoyed to find one, despite its steep price. There are hundreds of Dover reprints around and currently on ABE twelve copies of the 1930 John Rodker limited edition, with an introduction by Montague Summers. One chancer has the gall to boast that this particular edition is ‘ almost as rare as the 1st ‘. Hollow laughter from the direction of Raymond Teller ! Hocus Pocus Junior (1634) was heavily indebted to Scot, but is worth looking out for, nevertheless, for its illustrations and lively descriptions of legerdemain and magic trickery. A first will set you back thousands, but a 1950 limited edition reprint is currently on ABE at an amazing $775.

The books on magic you are more likely to find today date from the late eighteenth century, were often scissors and paste jobs. One of the better known examples is the four volume Rational Recreations (1774 ) by William Hooper, who is said to have been heavily indebted to Guyot’s Nouvelle Recreations, Physique et Mathematique. Hooper brings together a lot of practical or ‘ parlour ‘magic, such as optical illusions, magnetism, chemical experiments and fireworks . A ‘ sturdy ‘copy of the 1794 edition is priced at a not unreasonable £495 on ABE, where there is also a first at double that figure. John Badcock, was another- scissors- and- paste man whose Philosophical Recreations or Winter Amusements (circa 1820) contains material from a variety of sources. All editions appear to feature many attractive plates, which may explain the fancy prices—from $719 - $1200. A similar kind of book, Endless Amusement (1822), which went through many editions in the early 19th century, will cost at least £150.

Works on the history of magic date from the Victorian period are perhaps more sought after by collectors, since they were not often reprinted. Thomas Frost wrote three books, all of which are worth looking out for. The Old Showman and the Old London Fairs (1874) can be had for around $250. His Last Lives of the Conjurors (1876 )is much rarer, while Circus Life (1876), is rightly been described as a ‘ classic ‘ of its type. If you can tolerate a ‘ working ‘ copy of this book there is one in New Zealand at a reasonable $100. For a better copy you may have to pay four times this amount elsewhere.

Along with the early books on magic were the magazines, most of which are hard to find. The Conjuror’s Magazine was published in the 1790s and was the earliest magazine entirely devoted to magic. It’s very difficult to locate a single volume, let alone a complete run. Look out for the supplements on physiognomy, which were bound in with the magazine, but were often removed.

Houdini is a name collectors can’t ignore, though he was more a showman than a gifted illusionist. His books are ghosted because he couldn’t write for toffee. His titles, which include The Unmasking of Robert Houdin (1908), are collected avidly in his native United States, where they tend to be more expensive, especially if signed. In fact, it seems that anything associated with Houdini has a fancy price tag Stateside. Currently on ABE are a paper bag signed by the master at a painful $3,000+ while a longish letter of 1901 from him comes in at $14,500. All collectors must beware of forgeries. [ R.M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. 'Endless amusement' as the old book has it. It is very common and very slightly vexing for dealers to hear that collections of magic books have been offered to the Magic Circle, almost as common as military books that have been offered to the Imperial War Museum. The magic books always seem to get accepted but the military books are far less often wanted...

28 November 2011

Magazines (first issues)

The recent 50th Anniversary issue of Private Eye prints a letter from someone called David Lyon recalling a lucky find one evening in October 1961. Apparently, while walking through Soho he noticed a box fixed to a lamp-post:

‘It contained some roughly printed pamphlets on yellow paper, with a notice inviting me to take one in exchange for sixpence. I was not to know that my tanner had purchased a potentially valuable document : nowadays, apparently, copies of Private Eye Vol 1 No 1 are worth at least £1,000…’

Unluckily for the young Peter Cook, Richard Ingrams et al, quite a few thievish Soho-ites had removed the copies without placing the requisite payment in the honesty box. Fifty years on, the ‘roughly printed pamphlets‘ have turned into a British Institution, and its surviving founders and present editor, pillars of the media establishment. And yes, incredibly rare first issues of the Eye can fetch around a grand (depending on condition), though demand from ( I suspect ) present employees of the magazine mean that examples are extremely hard to find. Even the more common early copies from 1961/62 are very scarce.

So, I began to wonder what was the story behind other style ‘pamphlets ‘that had became British Institutions.—Viz, for instance. Back in 1979, when the incomparable chanteuse, Lene Lovich was enchanting us all, satirical artist Chris Donald produced the first issue of a magazine which was to raise puerile humour to new heights of comic inventiveness. Put together in a bedroom in his parent’s house in Jesmond, Viz comic had an initial print run of 150 and sold for 20p in a local pub. After this first run had sold out in hours, a new edition had to be run off. If you want to buy the particular copy from the initial run that Donald gave to a friend you’d have to shell out a mere $2,060 via ABE.

Punch, the Daddy of all great satirical magazines, but now sadly no more, also began unpromisingly. On17 July 1841 a small group of writers and artists who were friends, like the Private Eye crowd, saw a gap in the market for a satirical magazine and so the London Charivari was born. The print run was pretty large and so the first half-yearly volume of the magazine is not rare, though it can’t usually be found as a singleton. Don’t pay more than £10.

The general rule of thumb it would seem is that the more primitive and/or basic -looking the first issues were of a magazine that later achieved cult status, the more appealing (and therefore more expensive) they are. So, it follows that the reverse rule applies. Take, for example, the more respectable Scrutiny and Horizon,. The former highly influential mouthpiece of the Leavis circle, began as a very professionally produced critical review in 1932 and so copies of the highly combative debut issue tend not to be too expensive. I got mine for about £1, which though very cheap, but the single copy on ABE of the same issue is a reasonable $112. 22. In contrast, the first issue of Spender and Connolly’s Horizon, which first appeared in 1940, looks much like the last and shouldn’t set you back much more than £20. The same goes for first issues of other significant magazines that began well and continued looking much the same for years and years. There are obvious exceptions to this rule. A first issue of Radio Times (1923) is currently on ABE at £300. A first issue of the less prestigious TV Times (1955 ) shouldn’t cost you more than £30, whereas The Listener might come in at around a fiver. There is no obvious logic in all this, apart from the law of supply and demand.

Collectors might also be surprised at how reasonably priced other first issues of famous newspapers are. To start at the very lowest end of the market for quality, one can find copies of the first Daily Mail (1896) at about £60 and The Daily Express (1900), Daily Mirror (1903 ) and Sun (1964 ) cannot be much more. However, a first issue of The Times, which began in 1785 as The Daily Universal Register, will probably set you back £200- £300, depending on the condition, which is likely to be good, since the newsprint used in the late eighteenth century contained a much higher percentage of rags to acidic wood pulp than that produced from the mid Victorian period onwards. First issues of both The Daily Telegraph (1855) and The Grauniad (1821) may cost a bit less. Incidentally, first issues of all the above are exceptionally hard to locate online. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Yes early EYE issues (first 10) are rare as rockinghorse and highly desirable. Below are some 5 year old auction records - without the premiums (20%):

Private Eye. [N.p.: Andrew Osmond], 25 Oct, 1961 - Vol I, No 1 - 4to, - stapled as issued - Ptd on orange paper. - Bonham's, June 6, 2006, lot 1000, £1,250 ($2,300)
Private Eye. [N.p.: Andrew Osmond], 25 Oct, 1961 - Vol I, No 1 - 4to, - stapled as issued - Ptd on orange paper. - Minor stain to final page - Bonham's, Feb 24, 2004, lot 100, £880 ($1,636.80)
Private Eye. [N.p.: Andrew Osmond], 7 Nov, 1961 - Vol I, No 2 - 4to, - stapled as issued - Ptd on orange paper - Bonham's, Feb 24, 2004, lot 101, £550 ($1,023)
Private Eye. [N.p.: Andrew Osmond], 7 Nov, 1961 - Vol I, No 3 - 4to, - unsewn as issued - Ptd on orange paper - Bonham's, Feb 24, 2004, lot 102, £550 ($1,023)

Note these ones were orange. Possibly other colours exist. Andrew Osmond, by the way, was the original `Lord Gnome'. He backed the young satirists with all the money he had - £450 - and thought of the title. He deserved a peerage. Robin's little misspelling 'Grauniad' for 'Guardian' of course comes from the Eye and reflects the large amount of typos that used to occur in that worthy broadsheet...

19 November 2011

The collectable Alice Cooper

I sometimes look at the very long list A Book that Looks Like Nothing on Ebay forums. Worth checking to jog the memory before a library sale, boot fair or a raid on a flea market. The thread began in 2003 and covers all sorts of books that have (mostly) appeared on Ebay and that have made surprising sums. Surprising sums can mean a book that looks like an Amazon one cent special but makes $12 or a book bought for $12 at a dawn swap meet and sells for $3000. Some of the books are now 'netblown' i.e too many copies have appeared online and the price has descended alarmingly. The opposite can happen if a book is genuinely rare and lots of people (with money) want it.

Some of the books, to my mind actually look like something The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe, the 1939 Shell Guide to Devon, Dodd and Graham's Security Analysis (NY 1934 - a fairly easy $10,000 for a nice first) Carnival Strippers by Susan Meiselas, Clapp's The Big Bender (1938) and V by Thomas Pynchon. But who knows about Zimmermann's Source Code & Internals, Meerloo's Rape of the Mind (1956) Disco Bloodbath, Shafer's Mathematical Theory of Evidence (1976) etc.,? All circa S100 and look like nada.

What defines a 'Nothing' book? It cannot be too mainstream as there will be too many copies, or too minor and cultish as there will be too few copies and even less punters. Thus a big fat book on Elvis might be worth $0.001 but a book by Elvis's hard-worked Graceland cook might get you $50.

On the subject of Rock the list contains two Alice Cooper sleepers - the first, one of the more valuable rock rarities, is Alice's Me, Alice (Putnam, N.Y. 1976) a roaring tale of the early days of his career, along with the alcoholism (beer and whisky) that nearly ended him + his mentor Frank Zappa, hippies, sex, drugs and his fling with a GTO plaster-caster etc., It seems to go for $500 or more in a nice jacket although one guy says he wouldn't sell his signed copy for $20,000. A dealer called Splatterhead seems to have sold his copy for $666.66 and Alice's collaborator / ghost Steven Gaines is selling his remaining allotted copies on Amazon at a chancer's $2000 each (but he will sign it if requested.) Meanwhile another Alice Cooper book by band member Bob Greene Billion Dollar Baby: A provocative young journalist chronicles his adventures on tour as a performing member of The Alice Cooper Rock-and-Roll Band (1974) can get you well over $100 in a jacket and a $50 note in paperback.

Even one of his song books Alice Cooper Complete (Bizarre, L.A. 1973) is nodding on a $100. Alice's wild days are well behind him now and he has moved on to recovery, good works and a golf handicap of two. His 2007 work Alice Cooper, Golf Monster: A Rock 'n' Roller's Life and 12 Steps to Becoming a Golf Addict can be had for $3, however its hardback publication was greeted with queues all round the shop at his London signing at Borders and there are no signed copies online - which bodes well for his collectability. A piece of ephemera to watch out for are fake billion dollar bills from his 1973 tour. They can be had for $15 when they occasionally surface on Ebay...

11 November 2011

Filched First Folios

Eric Rasmussen. The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios. (Palgrave / Macmillan, London 2011) £16.99. Bibliomania, as anyone who is familiar with the literature on book thieves will know can drive normally respectable people to crime. It can also make scholars and journalists into literary detectives. Allison Hoover Bartlett, the journalist who tracked down John Gilkey in The Man who Loved Books too Much encountered a motley crew of bibliomaniacs along the way, including at least one murderer, while American Shakespeare scholar, Eric Rasmussen, whose The Shakespeare Thefts has just been sent to me, combed the globe to compile a definitive scholarly list of First Folios and decided found that the stories attached to so many of the 232 extant copies, were too amazing to be ignored.

Just as Bartlett constantly asked herself why people become mentally unbalanced in their pursuit of certain books—even to extent of killing to obtain them—Rasmussen begins his account with a similar question. What is it about Shakespeare’s First Folio that so fascinates both thieves and collectors. It can’t be because the world’s greatest writer had much to do with what is, after all, a posthumous volume; Shakespeare never saw it appear. He never read it; others compiled it from printed sources, notably the quartos, which having been published in the writer’s own lifetime, are undoubtably closer to the man. Are some collectors more obsessed with owning a quarto ? Rasmussen doesn’t say.

We have to accept, I suppose, that to those who know little or nothing of the genesis of the First Folio , it alone has become Shakespeare’s ‘ book ‘. To the man in the street it remains the fountain from which have flowed, subsequent editions, including all the texts children and undergraduates have pored over around the world for centuries.

But murder someone for a Folio ? This seems very likely in the case of the Fiske Harris copy, which ended up in the hands of an unscrupulous bookseller following the unexplained death in 1883 of a well-known American collector and his wife in a boating accident. But acquiring a copy in such a ruthless way is thankfully rare. Throughout the centuries, most copies have been stolen from libraries, only to end up centuries later in other libraries. One king was relieved of his copy. While escaping by boat to the Isle of Wight in 1647 Charles I took his own First Folio with him only to have it confiscated by the island’s governor when he embarked. The book passed through the hands of several collectors before it landed up in royal hands again, when George III acquired it for the Library at Windsor in 1800.

Libraries seem particularly unable to keep their First Folios safe from thieves. One of the funniest stories concerns a copy in William College Library in Massachusetts. In 1940 a gang member wearing the ‘uniform ‘ of an academic , that is ‘ an ill-fitting suit and a pair of old-fashioned eye-glasses ‘ managed to convince staff that he was bona fide. Left alone with several folios, it was even easier for this bogus professor to fish around in his brief case for a practically worthless copy of Goethe’s Reynard the Fox (1872) which had been smuggled in to replace the Folio. The thief then left hurriedly with his prize on some pretext or other. After much negotiation the book was recovered, thanks to good detective work. However, it might easily have been lost for ever.

Seventy years on, book detection has come a long way, and thieves today need to be much more au fait with the workings of the book trade, book history, bibliography and textual criticism to succeed. We know how even supposedly ‘ clever ‘criminals like William ‘Tome raider’ Jacques and Dr Simon Heighes, come a-cropper, but Raymond Scott, a Walter Mitty-like character from a council house in County Durham, who was sentenced to 6 years in 2010 for stealing a First Folio from Durham University Library, was hopelessly out of his depth from the start. His big mistake was to believe that if he removed the first and last pages of his copy, it wouldn’t be recognised. Alas, for the unemployed carer, who was living the high life in the Caribbean on the expectation of selling his book for a cool million, the curse of the First Folio triumphed.

But not all Rasmussen’s excellent stories revolve around thieves. There are some pretty eccentric collectors out there. One American gave his copy up because it had begun to smell horribly !!. Another, who lived off Big Macs and cheeseburgers, bought a copy of the Folio comparatively cheaply because the corners of many pages had been chewed off by rodents. This defect, however, proved no problem for our amateur book conservator. He bought loose leaves from a disbound copy of a Folio and instead of replacing the damaged leaves of his copy with the loose ones, actually cut off the corners of the latter and pasted them deftly onto the ones in his own Folio. For all its dottiness, there is a sort of warped logic in this solution, especially if the loose leaves themselves had imperfections. [R. M. Healey]

For this review much thanks Robin. Bit of a first for us - being sent a book to review. If the trend continues we will have a pile of books to sell and will have to call in a dealer! Hang on a mo, don't we buy review copies? Might make a low offer however...Pic of the Mitty-like Scott above.

05 November 2011

Dennis Wheatley's Library 2

More on the incredible Dennis Wheatley collection - acquired and catalogued by Blackwell's of Oxford in 1979. Things have changed in dealing and collecting in the 33 years since - as said before Blackwell's give no description of the condition of dust jackets -yet these, in current money, add several hundred thousand pounds to the value of the collection. Autre temps, autres moeurs. Some books were priced at a hundredth of their current value, whereas the purchasing power of the pound has only risen by a factor of four since 1979. However there are some books in the catalogue which are worth no more than was paid or have only doubled in value which in real terms means they have halved - if you get my drift.

Blackwells put heavy prices on 'roastbeef' (as Driffield used to call it) i.e. leather bound sets, old travel books, illustrated books ( Rackham, Russell Flint) and especially on the hyped up limited edition multi - volume works of the 1920s (Navarre Society, Medici Society, Peter Davies, John Rodker) which now clutter up the web and are firmly in the descendant. He appears to have bought most of these through the good offices of Percy Muir. To be fair the sets were often exquisitely bound ('turquoise morocco'...'tulip-ornamented panels in gilt'...'crushed victrix blue morocco') but would you want to pay £900 (now £3600) for a 25 volume set of the works of Stanley Weyman? Meanwhile for £110 you could have bought a 9 volume set of the works of William Hope Hodgson published between 1907 and 1921. A curious set of what appear to be first editions in 'original quarter white cloth' but surely worth £5000 or so.

Many books have Wheatley's handwritten note (usually on the front flyleaf) of the use to which the book was put by him, e.g. in a 1924 Medici Society limited edition Homer (illus Russell Flint) he has written "Used by me when writing my book 'Mayhem in Greece'. Dennis Wheatley." For his Roger Brook historical thrillers he appears to have consulted at least 50 of books in his collection. These notes and his bookplate generally enhance the value, but it is hard to say by how much.

A punter with occult powers of foresight could have spent £1000 on books in this catalogue and would now be able to realise £60,000 or more. However a less fortunate and slightly plodding buyer could have spent £1000 and find that he might only just get his money back, representing a loss of a cool £3000 on his investment. In my next posting I will go through some of the highlights (several Crowleys inc a jacketed, signed 'Drug Fiend' with ALS at £150, an early jacketed Hammett, a fine signed Well of Loneliness for £15 etc.,) and a few disasters. Hear is a taster - a signed presentation from Anthony Powell of Hearing Secret Harmonies. This bears an intriguing inscription 'I fear I rather trespass on your own territory here...Tony.' Was Scorpio Murtlock inspired by Gregory Sallust?

P.S. Many thanks to the Dennis Wheatley Project for the pics.

31 October 2011

The other John Lennon

A very odd find in a box of antiquarian books bought at auction-- the completely unknown John Lennon's Rossall Hall. A Poem (Printed for the Author, Preston 1834.) It was bound up with 6 other books including a book of Epicurean recipes (1832) and Memoirs of Madame Malibran de Beriot by Isaac Nathan author of The Hebrew Melodies. All in a small rust coloured moiré cloth-bound book with a leather label on the spine with the word 'Miscellanies' lettered in gold. Decent condition with some occasional foxing to text. The John Lennon book appears to be, like its author, completely unknown-- no copies at WorldCat, Copac or the mighty University of Karlsruhe database which has the complete catalogues of many worldwide libraries. The book is an UNCLE ('Unique No Copy Located Elsewhere') and worth a small fortune (let me dream...)

The book is a mere 36 pages and is mostly devoted to unadulterated praise of the great local landowner and philanthropist Sir Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood (1801 - 1866) who founded the town of Fleetwood, in Lancashire and was squire of Rossall Hall. At the time he also owned most of Southport. The book is dedicated to him and some of the verses may have been used in his election campaign. At the 1832 general election, Fleetwood was elected M.P. for Preston, in the first parliament following the Reform Act. The poem's style is slightly thumping, far better than McGonagall, but Swinburne he was not:

Hail Rossall Hall! thou stately dome,
With heavenly virtues blest:
Where learned sages find a home,
And weary traveller's rest.

Lennon, however, was no sycophant, his backing of Fleetwood was based on the politician's promise of work in the reform parliament for the rights of a million hand-loom weavers '...who, for a series of years have been labouring under the most unjust privations ever yet recorded in the annals of England's domestic history.' Lennon was campaigning in his poems for a minimum wage of a pound a week for the weavers. Fleetwood's many good works are recorded in his lengthy Wikipedia entry. He was also responsible for starting the development of the new resort town of Fleetwood built on a rabbit warren at Rossall Point near his stately pile. Initially he had considered naming his new town New Liverpool or Wyreton. I can find no trace of this John Lennon, the political poet, but an afternoon in Preston Library would probably reveal a few facts about him. Politically he was on the side of the working man and a dogged campaigner for worker's rights- that and a certain facility for rhyming connect him to his illustrious namesake.

Other compelling connections appear with a bit of searching online. Rossall Hall later became a private school and was attended by Stan Parkes, John Lennon's cousin. A fan site has this:
"Lennon had a large affiliation with Fleetwood where he regularly visited his cousin Stanley Parkes, the 'big brother' to the young John, the son of his Aunt Elizabeth (known as Mater)...George Parkes, the husband of Elizabeth and father of Stanley, died young and they moved to 33 Galloway Road where they lived with a local Fleetwood solicitor Mr Hodson. Stanley recalls he would often visit Liverpool and return to Fleetwood in the school holidays with his cousin Leila, Aunt Harriet's daughter. Stanley recalls they would all go up to Blackpool on the tram two or three times a week during their summer holidays to see separate shows. They would visit the Blackpool Tower Circus and see artists such as Dickie Valentine, Arthur Askey, Max Bygraves and Joe Loss and his big band. However, Stanley recalls it was George Formby who John particularly liked. The duo used to pass Formby's house regularly on the bus journey from Preston to Fleetwood where he and his wife would often be sitting in deck chairs in their garden at the front of their house. Stanley recalls he and John would wave and they would wave back. Stanley and the young John were keen fans of Fleetwood Flyers Speedway Club and Fleetwood Town FC. "

For a small outlay you could probably find the original John Lennon on ancestor or public records sites. He may even have been a relation to John Winston Lennon but probably not great grandfather as that man was said to have come from Ireland. A website called John Lennon's Family Tree states John Winston Lennon's great grandfather, James Lennon, son of Patrick Lennon, was born in County Down, Ireland in 1829. His father was a farmer. The John Lennon who flourished in 1832 appears to have been poor. He may have been a weaver himself ('One hundred hours we, every week/ Must toil for scanty fare...') He apologises to the great squire for 'the feeble outpourings of his rustic muse...the rude grasp of poverty will not afford me much time for mature reflection in the humble, but useful ranks, of a workman.' The book was printed by Wilcockson's of Preston. Who paid for the printing?

29 October 2011

Dust Jacket required

Let’s hope that after forty or more years the arguments about the importance of dust jackets/ wrappers has at last ceased. Times were when literary journalists and academics affected to despise this particular field of collecting. Disdainful and depressingly predictable remarks along the lines of : ’…who cares whether…I always throw it away…I wouldn’t pay a penny more for a book with one…it’s the text that counts…’ were frequently expressed. These detractors were often the same people who regarded (and perhaps still regard ) collectors of firsts as ‘ snobs ‘or nerds. I personally recall one incident that illustrated the suspicion that literary critics had for those who dared question the ‘texts’ that they took for granted. On this occasion my tutor, David Lodge, showed exasperation at being told that in a poem by, I think, Ted Hughes, the word ‘flies’ had been incorrectly printed as ‘files’ ( or was it vice-versa ? ). Those, who like me, had opted to study bibliography and textual criticism as a supplementary subject for three years were privately regarded as weirdos or iconoclasts. I suspect that this covert hostility still exists in Eng Lit departments, and the dismissal of book wrappers as somehow peripheral is symptomatic of the myopia of most literary critics. In any case, in the newish discipline of Book History the whole issue now sounds a bit passé. Things have moved on and one of the latest debates concerns the very earliest dust-jackets.

New discoveries are being made all the time. Not too long ago, most collectors would have dismissed the idea that jackets were issued with books before the First World War. A few others might have reported seeing seen them on older books, usually of the 1890s. Hardly anyone would have admitted to having seen a jacket on a book of the 1880s, let alone the 1870s, or earlier. The fact is, of course, that Victorian book jackets are pretty rare, and as such, are collected, both as integral parts of the book and as significant documents of publishing history. Now, thanks to ongoing research it has been confidently asserted that the first jacket with flaps dates from the 1840s and that the jacket as we know it dates from 1830, when copies of The Friendship’s Offering were sold parcelled up in plain, cheap paper with a printed simplified version of the title page facing upwards. There appear to be more late 19th century American books extant that have jackets. A non-English contender for the earliest jacket is Muggendorf und seine Umgebung oder die frankische Schweiz by Joseph Heller, which appeared in 1829.

This is astonishing news for anyone interested in the history of the book. The sadder thing is that probably in 99.99 % of cases,these earliest of book protectors were immediately removed and thrown away by the bookseller when the item went on display in the shop window. The fact that one of these 1830 wrappers has survived this treatment is a minor miracle. After all, why should anyone wish to preserve what amounts to a piece of plain off-white wrapping paper with minimal printing?

Well, as Dr Joad probably didn’t say, ‘It all depends what you mean by paper wrapping’. I am one of those sad people who can get excited by early wrapping paper and was overjoyed to buy a run ( 1809 – 29 ) of a provincial newspaper with each year’s newspaper wrapped in contemporary paper inscribed in ink with the appropriate date. Having never been a great fan of fancy gilt binding (unless from some wealthy collector’s library of Renaissance bindings), I also bought my copy of a 1790s political tract because it came simply sewn in plain paper---no boards. A dealer I know bought some first edition OS sheets of the late Georgian period which were wrapped in the original brown paper.

So it is, I suppose, that for all their visual dullness, these mid Victorian wrappers exude a period charm. I tracked down some of the earliest titles on ABE and found four of them. The earliest was Ancient Armour and Weaponry by John Hewitt (1855), then came Daedalus, or the causes and principles of Greek Sculpture, by Edward Falkener (1860), The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll (1875), and Hezekiah Butterworth’s Zig-zag journeys in Classic Lands (1881). None had jackets, except for the latter, which the alert dealer, who demanded $350 for his copy, knew was a ‘very scarce’ item in its printed and illustrated wrapper. Another site offers for sale various Victorian jackets ( no books with them, it would seem ) dating from 1877 to 1906, and ranging in price from $850 ( Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno Concluded) to just $100. Quite a few have been sold already.

The moral is keeping looking. According to the invaluable (many thanks) Early Dust Jackets blog, at least ‘8 or 10 ‘ copies of The Hunting of the Snark are known to have survived in their jackets, and you can bet that each copy is worth big bucks. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. I tend to think dealers rate early jackets on books higher than punters, probably because they appreciate how rare they are. By the way that's Robert E. Howard's 'A Gent from Bear Creek' (Jenkins 1937) although it is only 75 years old I can think of 10,000 reasons I would like to find it wearing a jacket. Ship and bill. A high-end player in modern firsts has a Zuleika Dobson (1911) from the 'incomparable' Max at £10,000 in a decentish jacket. It has been there many moons and £10K may keep it there for a while longer even though it is now 100 years old. Sans jacket it is at best a £100 book, so the jacket adds 100 times value. There are books with greater variables than this-- a copy of Dickens's Edwin Drood (1870) appeared in a jacket and sold for $100 about 70 years ago in Philadelphia (and has subsequently disappeared) - today it could make a comfortable five figure sum, with a decent cloth first procurable at about £400. Likewise the Hound of the Baskervilles or even earlier Sherlock firsts, not completely unknown in jackets, can command staggering sums. However it's hard to beat Brighton Rock for add-on value from a jacket -- £250 to £40,000. It's candy coloured.

28 October 2011

Book signings

When did the cult of book signing begin ? By book-signing I mean the organised book-signing in a bookshop. I ask because it is not always obvious in what circumstances a book was signed. In my copy of E.V. Lucas’s At the Shrine of St Charles (1934), Auntie Jessie of 21, Woodstock Road, Croydon has interleaved a note telling her niece that she had ‘a chance to get this autographed copy of St Charles‘. The question is, did, she stand in line at the Croydon branch of W. H. Smiths some time in 1934 to get that nice Mr Lucas to sign his latest work? Or did she schlep to town later for a talk by Lucas, perhaps at a meeting of the Charles Lamb Society ?

Is an author necessarily going to include in their inscription the fact that the book was signed in a shop, with all that this entails? After all, even today, when we profess not to care about such social niceties, signing a cartload of books from cardboard boxes in a branch of Waterstones, complete with a simpering PR graduate aide, is one thing; a few books brought in by genuine fans for signatures at a Foyles literary luncheon is quite another. Is anyone going to believe you when you boast that Martin Amis signed your first of The Rachel Papers over a glass of Chablis and a longish chat on the literary merits of Saul Bellow at the Hay Festival? ‘Well, all I see is his signature’, your sceptical friend remarks.’ Nothing about Bellow or Hay ‘. Are you sure you didn’t meet him at Hatchards’s ?

You are suitably mortified. You had to talk for ten minutes about tennis to keep him keen, you recall. And the rest of the Festival was a waste of time and money. Good job I like second hand books. But to return to the book store. The literature on book store signings is pretty thin. Diaries and letters of the twentieth century are probably the best source, but I could find little. And if you Google ‘ history of book signings ‘, hoping to get some juicy anecdotes on Auden or Waugh in the thirties, you are disappointed . So perhaps this particular marketing phenomenon is of a comparatively recent date. And indeed, according to one American internet source, Book Tours as we know them today, were the brainchild of the novelist Jacqueline Susann in the sixties. Apparently she would hire a plane, load it with books, and check herself into a string of bookstores. But that degree of glitziness seems particularly American, and today the Book Tour, celebrity or otherwise, seems more popular in the States.

And what of the professional dealers who stand in line with the punters? Many authors despise the breed and claim to be able to pick them out from the modern Auntie Jessies. I have my doubts about this. The cunning dealer intent on obtaining a signature is unlikely to target the same author before a respectable period of time has elapsed. Moreover, many dealers are married (sometimes hard to believe) with children, all of whom can be deployed to obtain signatures. However, it is probably true that at a book signing no author will sign one of their previously published tomes, unless, one supposes, the customer has already bought a copy of the title being promoted.

I must admit to regarding this particular kind of opportunist dealer with sneaking admiration. The risk of being humiliated by an angry author is not something that everyone is prepared to take. And all for a signature ! And so I ask, what’s the big deal with signed contemporary fiction ? Here are some prices attached to items offered for sale by various dealers in the now defunct Book and Magazine Collector over the past three years.

Sean Connery, Being a Scot (signed 1st/1st. W&N 2008) F/F £225.
B. Jacques, Redwall (signed) VG VG £295
J Lindsay, Darkly Dreaming Dexter (signed) F/F £125
Wilbur Smith, Hungry as the Sea (signed) F/F £125
Andrew Taylor, Our Fathers Lies (1985 signed) F/F £90
D. Morrell, Testament, VF/VF, signed UK 1st £100

And so on. They seemed foolishly expensive but surprisingly the net now just about bears them out. [R. M. Healey]

Thanks Robin. The Connery seems toppish but I guess it's bought by those in the thrall of Bond and he might be a difficult chap to corner with book and pen - so 225 smackers could possibly be raised. I had more luck on Google but you have to drill down to fan sites where discussions of book signings and the ungrateful ways of celebs is fairly rife. On the subject of angry authors a friend was at a Rushdie signing and asked the novelist to sign a few books, including a book he had fulsomely praised, the amazing ALL ABOUT H. HATTERR by G. V. Desani. Salman got in quite a bate that he was being asked to sign a book he didn't write, raised voices etc., Not sure about the etiquette there. I would be wary of asking Peter Ackroyd to sign Iain Sinclair's 'Lud Heat' for example (a book he acknowledged as a big influence on 'Hawksmoor.') Keep it simple might be the maxim when meeting the luminaries of lit.

A cautionary tale of a fan who spotted Dylan and asked for an autograph. He produced a book to sign and Bob was about to sign but the fan did not or could not provide a pen. 'No pen, no autograph' snapped the bard and hurried off.

22 October 2011

Dennis Wheatley's Library

This incredible collection, rich in modern first editions, was acquired and catalogued by Blackwell's of Oxford in 1979. The venerable company did not quite 'get' modern first editions at the time and there were many bargains. Later they cottoned on to them and started asking higher prices than most dealers in the field. The condition of dust - jackets is not described and as late as the 1950s jackets were often not mentioned even if present. In Wheatley's case they were often fine but to not describe them seems amazing to the modern sensibility; they are the sine qua non of such collecting.

It is said one of the big orderers on the first day was the late Chris Radmall, one of the champions of the jacket in his boutique like shop in Covent Garden, London 'Bell, Book and Radmall.' Between Covent Garden and Santa Barbara the cult of the modern first, with its emphasis on condition and jackets, was busy being born. John Baxter in his Pound of Paper says that Radmall would have been equally at home in Carnaby Street and the (dust) jackets in his window were objects of beauty in themselves.***

The reasonableness of Blackwell's prices can be demonstated by looking on the net now for books that have Wheatley's bookplate. He had stuck them in the majority of books, usually in the version pictured above. Of the 2274 books about 60 have found their way back to dealers and are on ABE (there are doubtless more, but with the bookplate not noted by inept mom and pop operations etc.,) Many have risen in price by 20 or 30 times while the retail index has gone up about 4 times since 1979, but to be fair a lot of books, especially modern firsts, have outperformed these figures. A jacketless U.S. first of Hemingway's Farewell to Arms was listed at £80 - it has subsequently acquired a jacket and a dealer in Mobile, Alabama wants a not unreasonable £2400 for it. For £15 you could also have bought the 1929 UK first of Hem's great novel in the distinctive Lee Elliott dustwrapper - not uncommon but now a fairly easy £600 in fine/fine condition.

Some books from this cata have re- emerged with their jackets now actually described. Wheatley's signed copy of Eric Ambler's The Night Comers (1956) which was £12 has found it's way to bohemian Mill Valley in California where £420 is needed - the jacket is described as near fine with 'only the most minor wear to the extremities' and it is noted that the price is not clipped-- price-clipping was not much of an issue in 1979 and is not mentioned anywhere in the catalogue. The dealer notes 'this copy belonged to fellow master thriller author Dennis Wheatley (ornate bookplate).'

The bookplate by Frank Papé, whom Wheatley knew and collected, is a curious item. I had always thought that the centaur figure on the left was G.B. Shaw, but in fact it was W's mentor Gordon Eric Gordon-Tombe, murdered in sordid circumstances in 1922. At an auction in 1985 a dealer bought a 35,000 word manuscript by Wheatley that reveals he knew that his charismatic friend was a fraudster, orgiast and thief. He had fought with him on the Western Front and he used him as the model for the pre- Bond hero Gregory Sallust. Talking of Bond there are no Flemings in the catalogue, possibly due to some animosity ...

One of the most startling item in the catalogue was in the first entry - 'the only extant whole copy of the torn-up photograph' in Who Killed Roger Prentice? (1937). This was in the very collectable crime series of crime dossiers consisting of facsimile documents and clues (burnt matches, cigarettes, train tickets etc.,) in little envelopes and the murderer's name in a sealed envelope. This was part of a 55 volume set of his own collection of his works sumptuously bound by Sangorski preserving the jackets (laid down) with the manuscript of one work ( Of Vice and Virtue) and a signed letter from Winston Churchill. All for £4500.

More to come-- including an examination of changing tastes in collecting. For example Blackwell's put £6 on a Charles Birkin's Devil's Spawn (1936) signed to Wheatley and fine in a jacket. At a 100 times this price the book would probably last less than a minute on the web in 2011. Some of the 2274 books however are now worth the same or less than they were priiced at 33 years ago...but not many.

*** Baxter also says that Chris Radmall launched the night-club Annabel's with his pal George Harrison, in fact it was a short-lived club for posh and beautiful persons called Sybilla's. Possibly George helped out.

18 October 2011

The Non Non-Book / Half Book, Half Biscuit

Dealing in used books you occasionally come across scam genealogical books. These were going before the internet and must be an early example of 'Print on Demand' (POD) technology. They were sold as genealogical books about your family and usually cost about £25. You got a general introduction, a section about the origin of surnames in general, a section about heraldry, a couple of blank charts to copy and complete once you had done your own research, a few recipes and (sometimes) a list of names, addresses and telephone numbers of persons with the same surname culled from world telephone directories. People probably bought them as presents but for anyone who consulted them disappointment was guaranteed. Content was all totally generic with nothing about your family. If your name was, say, Liddell the book would be called The Book of Liddells. On the 'never give a sucker an even break' principle these are still marketed and have graduated to the web - they are pathetic objects of no real second hand value and have to be unceremoniously pulped by dealers along with those rather sad scam directories of 'important' people etc.,

I was reminded of these by an article in the most recent Private Eye on the activities of a German company called Betascript who produce books culled from articles on Wikipedia. To be fair this is now proudly declared on the cover and on Amazon 'High Quality Content by Wikipedia Articles.' Like all the best scams it's all legal. They have produced over 150,000 books, mostly edited by a cove called Lambert M. Surhone. They cover thousands of subjects, mostly minor e.g Rail Accidents in Winsford (£28 for a 96 page POD paperback.) It has the 2 page Wikipedia article on crashes in Winsford and pads out the rest of the article with full Wikipedia entries that are hyperlinked within the article - Battersea Park Rail Crash, a history of Cheshire etc., As the Eye says 'people in Winsford aren't to know that and might even be tempted to buy it.' One suspects these books are generated without human interference-- their scholarly work on Orford Ness in Suffolk, U.K. has a map of America on the cover and another work on the Soviet republic of Georgia has a picture of downtown Atlanta on the cover.

The book above on Scams in Intellectual Property is so close to the bone that it may signify that the publisher actually does not know what they are offering. Another major non non-book player 'Books LLC' also out of Germany and responsible for 200,000+ such books, has a book on this style of publishing and the Wikipedia article is less than friendly towards the enterprise. Such a programme could, in theory, generate an infinite number of books. You could even ask it to write a book just for you.

Often the books will wander into irrelevant or whimsical territory through the hyperlinks. In a book on the actor Ronald Colman it mentions that he went to a boarding chool in Littlehampton - so readers get two pretty thorough pieces on Littlehampton and on boarding schools. He had hoped to go to Cambridge but didn't make it-- this is a good excuse for an exhaustive history of the university. The journalist Gene Weingarten found they had generated a book on him which has sold 3 copies apart from the one he bought: these are not great sellers but with 300,000 PODs sitting on their computers even 2 sales per book is handy. There are 950,000 Lambert Surhone books for sale at ABE of which only 500 are actual printed books, presumably bought by unfortunate punters and returned swiftly to the market. This indicates poorish sales -- for example in the relatively sane world of new age publishing there are 3000 used copies of just one title The Celestine Prophecy for sale on ABE.

Some of the connections found in these books are almost Dadaist --in the magisterial Vreni Schneider: Annemarie Moser-Pröll, FIS Alpine Ski World Cup, Winter Olympic Games, Slalom Skiing, Giant Slalom Skiing, Half Man Half Biscuit basically a non non-book about the Swiss skier Vreni Schneider there is a longish piece on English indie rock band Half Man Half Biscuit. Schneider had been namechecked in a song by them called 'Uffington Wassail.' Some trivia hound has added this to Schneider’s Wikipedia page and the Biscuits end up in a slalom skiing book. It's a mad world my masters.

15 October 2011

Libraries of the Great Dictators 1

Colonel Gaddafi

Most of those who commented on the pictures showing the deserted palace of Gaddafi were disturbed by the fact that for all his wealth the Great Dictator’s idea of opulence was having in one room a giant golden mermaid ‘ with a long beard ‘ and in another a bright yellow mock up of a sports car projecting from one wall . The bad taste was seen to spread to two further rooms that might have been small libraries, but were evidently not the sort that, say Hitler or Louis XIV would have had. The wall of one room had shelves stacked with what seemed to be hundreds of multi-coloured plastic bound photographic albums, some of which showed Mr Gaddafi smiling with fellow war criminal Blair. Another room was furnished what appeared to be proper books, some of which had been heedlessly been swept onto the floor. But books were not the concern of one wit who posted that a looter shown on the photograph seemed to have found the Colonel’s prized collection of Richard Clayderman and Barry Manilow CDs.

One mustn’t be too judgmental here. In another raid earlier in the year looters found books on Jewish occultism and sorcery in one of the Colonel’s palaces. And as far as the Tripoli palace is concerned, not all the rooms were photographed, and it could be that one locked room held a priceless collection of Korans and commentaries dating back to the ninth century, together with early Arabic treatises on mathematics, science and philosophy, all bound in precious jewelled encrusted camel-skin bindings. Or perhaps not. Almost all of the above could apply to Saddam Hussein, although he did not look like a Barry Manilow man.

Idi Amin

Could he read ? He became a General, so one must assume that he could. Possible contents of his library might have been: the uniform edition of Walter Scott in leather-style PVC, a colonial edition of Robert Burns in tartan cloth, a colour-in pop-up book of Castles of Scotland published by Odhams Press, and the selected poems of William McGonigall with an introduction by Andy Stewart.
However, probably no firsts…

Adolf Hitler

According to many sources Hitler had been a bibliophile since his student days and at the height of his power received around 4,000 books a year into his library, which at one point consisted of an amazingly diverse collection of around 16,000 volumes, 1,200 of which are now in the Library of Congress. The disappointment is that most of these volumes were signed presentation copies from the authors, and there is no strong evidence that the Fuhrer ever read them. However, a few of the 1,200 have annotations, which suggested that Hitler was a habitual reader. Though no devourer of classic novels, he rated Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels among the greatest works of world literature. He also loved trashy novels and among his collection were found many dogged eared books by a popular German writer of Westerns.

Some of the books he brought into his Berlin bunker are revealing too. It will probably never be known exactly what books the Russians found when they entered the Fuhrer’s private quarters, but an American Colonel, Albert Aronson, who was one of the first Americans to enter Berlin after the collapse of the Nazi resistance, was allowed by the Russians to take around 80 of the volumes that remained after the communist forces had picked the place clean and left. These books, which ended up in Brown University Library, included over twelve works on the occult that Hitler had acquired in the early twenties, such as The Predictions of Nostradamus and the infamous Magic: History Theory and Practice by Ernest Schertel, who wrote numerous books on flagellation and eroticism, and was "a central figure" in the German nudist movement of the 1920s and 1930s. Hitler’s copy was heavily marked and bears a handwritten dedication from Schertel, scrawled on the title page in pencil. A particularly thick pencil line appears beside the passage "He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world." Other books were devoted to Nordic runes, among them a 1922 history of the swastika, richly illustrated with nearly 500 diverse renderings—in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Greek pottery, Mayan temples, and Christian crosses. William Dudley Pelley's The Dead Are Alive delivers "incontrovertible evidence on occultism, somnambulism, spiritualism, with sixteen photographs of ghosts." Among the photographic images that fill the final pages of the volume is one of five people levitating a table at an 1892 séance in Genoa and another allegedly showing the ghost of a fifteen-year-old Polish girl, Stasia, being consumed by a "luminous, misty substance."

The rest of the 80 were, like the Library of Congress books, a mixed bag : picture books, art journals, an Italian libretto of Wagner's Walküre, a 1937 edition of Mein Kampf, and two editions of Dr Alfred Rosenberg's The Myth of the Twentieth Century. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Chilling stuff. I remember once at a slow auction a generalist dealer reminiscing about a carpet he had bought that had been in Hitler's office, one wag asked him 'was it badly chewed?' As for Idi Amin I believe I heard he had a manual for his Ferrari. When it broke down the garage told him he would have to wait several weeks for the part from Italy but the dictator said that unless the car was ready the next day the mechanic would be shot. One imagines the unfortunate fellow somehow fashioned the part from metal or plundered another Ferrari. (Btw that's Gaddafi's pool above.) There is a good glossy book you sometimes see about dictator kitsch - Peter York's 'Dictator Style.' Why do dictators display such bad taste? Maybe it's because no one dare criticise or advise them...

23 September 2011

Hope Mirrlees

Hope Mirrlees. PARIS. Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, 1919 ( ie 1920)
Current Prices-- up to $8000

The rediscovery of the Scottish writer Hope Mirrlees (1887 – 1978) is, I feel, principally due to the merits of her one masterpiece, the long poem Paris, which the Woolfs published in 1920. Only 175 copies of the 600 line poem were produced, which means that it now belongs with Pound’s early privately printed work as a true rara avis of modernism. At present, one dealer has a superb copy for $8,000. Predictably, critics today use the modish term ‘psychogeographical ‘ to describe the poem, which is a daring, impressionistic tour in French and English through the French capital and has been described as the ‘ missing link between French avant-garde poetry and The Waste Land.' The stylistic parallels are obvious, and the influences of Pound and other Imagists, are noticeable too:-

A red stud in the button-hole of his frock-coat
The obscene conjugal tutoiment
Mais, c’est logique
The Esprit de Francais is leaning over him

Hot indiarubber
Poudre de riz
Algerian tobacco

Monsieur Jourdain in the blue and red of the Zouaves
Is premier danseur in the Ballet Turque
‘Ya bon
Mama mouchi…

And so on. Paris is undoubtably a brilliant debut and deserved the care and attention that the Woolfs devoted to it. The paper for the covers, for instance, is the same paper used as endpapers on the first edition of Jacob’s Room. Virginia Woolf hand-set the proofs herself and hand-corrected the final copies. From her diaries it would seem that the novelist/publisher regarded her brilliant, multi-lingual, young protégé, whose family fortune derived from diesel and sugar, with a mixture of admiration and disdain. She was:

‘ a very self-conscious, willful, prickly and perverse young woman, rather conspicuously well-dressed and pretty, with a view of her own about books and style, an aristocratic and conservative tendency in opinion & a corresponding taste for the beautiful & elaborate in literature ‘ .

Oddly, Eliot himself has little or anything to say of Paris, at least in his published letters of the period, although he came to know Mirrlees well in later years and indeed wrote portions of The Four Quartets at her home at Shamley Green, Surrey. The early twenties was a productive period for Mirrlees. Paris was followed by a novel, The Counterplot (1925), then came The Book of the Bear (1926), a series of translations of tales from the Russian which she produced with Jane Harrison, with whom she shared her life for many years. In the same year appeared the book which has gained her a cult following. Lud in the Mist has been described by Neil Gaiman as ‘one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written ‘ and also a ‘reconciliation of the fantastic and the mundane’. Others have compared it to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and more pointedly to the work of Tolkien, who may well have been influenced by it - there are definite similarities in style and characterisation. There are themes—notably relating to how imagination is related to reality-- that resound more strongly in today’s climate than they did in Mirrlees’s own era. Its reprinting ( without the author’s consent) in 1970 introduced it to the Flower-Power generation and its popularity has slowly increased ever since. At present, copies of the novel in paperback are easy to find online at sensible prices, though no copy of the first 1926 English edition is presently on ABE. There are, however a few copies of the first American edition ranging in price from $500 to $1,200.

After Harrison’s death in 1928 Mirrlees’s productivity suddenly slumped to almost nothing. Protected by her family’s wealth, she was able to pursue her literary and other interests as a virtual recluse, without fear of penury, though in the fifty years left to her she published only one other book, A Fly in Amber ( 1962), which is a biography of the remarkable Elizabethan antiquarian and book collector Sir Robert Cotton. Copies of this are easily and cheaply available on ABE. Mirrlees died in 1978.

For those interested in twentieth century women’s writing, it may be instructive to compare and contrast the life and work of the privileged Mirrlees with that of the impoverished Charlotte Mew, though their work was markedly different in style and scope. Both were publishing in the same era, were equally determined and strong in their different ways, and both women braved convention in their sexual orientation. Following the publication of the penurious and tragic Mew’s Collected Poems, we are very soon to have from Carcanet the Collected Poems of the only slightly more prolific Mirrlees. Paris does, of course, feature largely in this collection, but for those who would prefer to read the poem in facsimile, the Pegana Press have recently published an edition of 50 numbered copies at £375. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. The price of $8000 may be toppish but It is certainly a 4 figure book. I sold one a decade back in the hundreds -probably a routine copy, it went to a Hogarth Press completist and it is likely to be the Hogarth connection that drives up the price. It is one of the handful of 'stoppers' when it comes to building a Hogarth collection although it is not nearly as rare as 'Poems by C.N. Sidney Woolf' (1918) which on this reckoning must hit $10000! Woolmer notes that most copies of 'Paris' have 2 short hand-written corrections by Virginia Woolf (pages 3 and 22.)

A good book came out in 2009 about Hope by Michael Swanwick 'Hope in the Mist' -- it has sold out (that's the author above placing a rose on her grave.) I got my copy through selling the author's agent a Mirrlees letter (to Raymond Mortimer) at a slightly reduced price. Sadly it is not the one of 30 signed by the author and Neil Gaiman and the fantasy artist Charles Vess. There were also 5 copies lettered A - E for presentation-- hand bound in iridescent ripe plum silk with chartreuse cloth covered slipcase. You could not miss one of those. By the way 'Paris' is a small book less than 6 inches high - look out for the red blue and gold diamond design...