World Rare Book Day

world-map-communicationsI naturally like to regale the family over the supper table with all the latest news from the world of rare books.  The family is slightly ambivalent about this: stifled yawns sometimes remain unstifled; eyes are exaggeratedly rolled; fathomless stupefactions of chronic boredom are elaborately mimed, and silent departures from the table to go and have a lie down are by no means unknown.

A recent pop-up fair in Australia

A recent pop-up fair in Australia

Imagine then my surprise, my triumph, when I announced the concept of Pop-Up Bookfairs – and not just one or two, but a worldwide rolling twenty-four hour programme to celebrate a World Rare Book Day – fairs popping up all over the place, time-zone by time-zone, on a single day – right across the globe and all backed-up by the full might of social media.  Tweet-pop, tweet-pop, from Australia to L.A. and beyond.  Pictures, videos and reports on the web,  YouTube, Instagram and wherever else anyone can think of.  “That’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant”, said Daughter No. 1.  “Oh, you are soooo twenty-first century”, said Daughter No. 2.  “We’ve got a trestle table”, said my dear wife, fondly imagining that the number of books in the house might actually decrease if I popped out for a pop-up.  Incredible.  I had managed to hold their attention for – oh – thirty or forty seconds. Well, twenty anyway.

I’d like to take credit for the idea, but of course it’s not mine.  It’s the brainchild of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) – and it’s really going to happen.  World Rare Book Day – 23rd April 2015.  Shakespeare’s birthday (of course) – and already for the last twenty years or so designated as the International Day of the Book.  Vladimir Nabokov’s  birthday too, come to that.  And J. P. Donleavy’s.  And St. George’s Day.

And look who popped up! It's our Honorary Member Nicolas Barker.

And look who popped up! It’s our Honorary Member Nicolas Barker.

The idea is that the venues will be somewhere unexpected, imaginative, quirky or newsworthy – where we can expect to meet people who would never normally find us.  A hotel lobby, a theatre foyer, a railway concourse, a town hall, a banking hall, a shopping mall – anywhere where there are people in plenty with a few minutes to spare.  Even a bookshop if imagination fails.  An old woolshed in Victoria has already been earmarked.

Sally Burdon

Sally Burdon

It’s the brainchild in particular of the redoubtable Sally Burdon of the Asia Book Room in Canberra and the equally excellent Barbara van Benthem, who runs the very impressive ILAB website.  Here’s Sally at the York Book Fair a couple of years ago (she was born on Tyneside and is really one of us) – and Barbara preparing to take yet another high quality picture for the website.  They will be co-ordinating the event worldwide.

Barbara van Benthem

Barbara van Benthem

It  will all present an opportunity for booksellers, whether or not they have a shop, to meet potential new customers face to face.  And there really is no greater delight for a bookseller than to present someone with their first genuine encounter with a rare book.

© Holybourne Rare Books

© Holybourne Rare Books

A book they can handle, touch, fondle, smell and experience at first hand – the crackle of hand-made paper, the patina of a fine binding, the original edition of a favourite book.

© George Bayntun

© George Bayntun

And what riches we have to offer – you know we do, of course we do:  here are a couple of beautiful bindings currently available from ABA members, each priced at around £500 – one a little more, one a little less.  I could show you thousands more.   Tens of thousands of fabulous books available from booksellers affiliated to ILAB worldwide.

© Bernard Quaritch

© Bernard Quaritch

Here are a couple of topical titles from Bernard Quaritch – ideal farewell presents for a soon to be failed politician we may think (naming no names and making no assumptions, but we don’t entirely live in the past).  It’s an opportunity for booksellers worldwide, whatever the size, scale or style of their business, to combine together in a single if widely dispersed event, which is bound to be well publicised.  We reach out to a new audience.  We reach out to young collectors.  We engage.

© Bernard Quaritch

© Bernard Quaritch

The ILAB World Rare Book Day pop-up bookfairs will be easy to organize – some booksellers, some books, some tables and a big sign.  Just liaise with ILAB on the publicity.  No-one has to travel far or be away from base for too long. They can last all day or just an hour or two.  Imagination and invention are the only limitations.

It has not been confirmed yet but the idea is to tie it all in with an appropriate international charity – a literacy project of some kind would seem to fit the bill.  Collectors all start as readers, after all.  Each of the pop-up fairs will display a poster of a symbolically empty bookcase.   Visitors will be offered the opportunity to ‘buy’ an image of a symbolic book (or better still a set of books) to adorn the poster and fill the bookcase – donating money to support the charity.  ILAB will provide everything necessary: poster, book pictures, a price list, fundraising information, a press release and clear suggestions on running the event.  As the day progresses there will be online reporting of how the global Mexican Wave of pop-up fairs is going and what they have raised.

World in LettersAs Sally says, “Pop-up fairs are great – you bring very little stock, just a few good books, put them out on a table and you are not exhibiting for long. The advantage is that they will be low or no cost for the dealers to take part in and will not require anything like the organisation of the traditional fairs”.  So – it’s over to you.  We know when – Thursday 23rd April 2015. The where is up to you.  What can we come up with across the UK?  Let’s get going.

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Andrews of Durham – A Prize Binding

FroudeBought for no more than the price of modest supper from the admirable Keel Row Bookshop a couple of weeks ago.   The book in itself not especially enticing – no more than a ‘Silver Library’ edition (1901) of that troubled, controversial, but once so universally read historian, James Anthony Froude (1818-1894) – a man who at once put more of his own feelings into his writing than a historian properly should, but yet also went back to the original sources in what was then a pioneering way.  Here on a favourite topic, “English Seamen in the Sixteenth Century” – Hawkins, Drake and the heroes of the battle against the Spanish Armada.  ‘Proper English history’ as I like to think of it – and here pretty much as it was still taught back in my schooldays.

Bede CollegeWhat attracted me was neither the edition nor particularly the content (interesting as it is), but that it is a book with a complete narrative of its own – a copy with its own unique and definable history.  In a prize binding blocked on the upper cover with the shield of the Durham Training College for School Masters, also known as the College of the Venerable Bede and already then formally part of Durham University – and bound locally by Andrews of Durham.

red edgesAn attractive binding – half calf, ruled, banded and worked in gilt and blind, red label, cloth sides, mainly blue and red marbled endpapers, blue and white silk headbands – conventional enough in design to be sure, save the slightly unusual colour – one of those faultline colours on the blue-green spectrum which you have to ask a woman to describe as the male eye generally can’t see it truly (something to do with the cone cells in the retina).  Anne says ‘peacock blue’ – which it is in the photograph, although to my eye much more green in real life.  Another slightly unusual feature (at least on a non-religious text) are the red edges all round – beautifully executed.  All carried out in good materials, with proper Oxford cloth for the sides.  It has exactly the right heft to the hand and ease of opening of a truly well-bound book.  And the quality shows – over a hundred years on and it’s still in excellent shape – the fugitive colour (whatever we call it) still unfaded.

Andrews of DurhamAndrews of Durham – a new name to me and one evidently not widely known to the denizens of the interweb.  A single early twentieth-century plaquette binding in the British Library Database of Bookbindings, nothing much else in the obvious sources – and yet once a famous bookshop for the best part of two centuries and something of a landmark in Durham.  The British Book Trade Index and Peter Wallis’s supplement to C. J.  Hunt’s “The Book Trade in Northumberland and Durham to 1860” between them have some of the answers.  The firm was founded by the first George Andrews (1779-1832), bookseller, stationer, publisher, mapseller, printseller, bookbinder and music-seller, as early as 1808, originally (until 1823) in partnership with Francis Humble.  The premises were on Sadler Street – now known as Saddler Street but normally spelt with a single ‘d’ in the nineteenth century – right in the heart of Durham.

MarblingOn his death in 1832, the business was taken over by his widow, Frances Andrews (1779-1867), whose 1835 “Catalogue of Books in Various Languages Now on Sale by Frances Andrews, Bookseller, Binder and Stationer, Durham” survives in  the Durham County Record Office (along with other material relating to the family and the business).  At some point after 1851, at which date she was still very much in charge of the business, she made way for their son and her former assistant, the second George Andrews (1814-1861).  On his death in 1861, Frances Andrews, now in her eighties, still in Sadler Street, took the helm once more.  In that year she was employing five men and two apprentices and the business was evidently substantial.  In 1863 her daughter, also Frances Andrews (1811-1897), previously a governess, married the widowed Londoner John Henry Le Keux (1812-1896), a well-known engraver who could meet even the exacting standards of his friend John Ruskin and who had worked on both “The Stones of Venice” (1851-1853) and “Modern Painters” (1855-1860).

titleWhen Frances Andrews died at the age of  eighty-eight in 1867, it was Le Keux who took over the running of the business, continuing both to paint and engrave in his spare time.  A few months before his own death in 1896, the business was sold to his manager, Warneford (or Warnford) Smart (1865-1965), the son of a Gloucestershire baker and at one time a librarian in Guildford.   Under Smart, according to the “Publishers’ Circular” of January 1909 (reporting on the firm’s recent centenary dinner), the business had grown considerably, “necessitating the removal to larger and more convenient premises [farther along Sadler Street], and even still further extensions until at the present day it may truly be considered one of the finest businesses in the North of England”.   And so it was: the firm were official booksellers and publishers to Durham University, publishers of the university calendar and examination papers, and publishers for the Surtees Society.  Andrews & Co. were also the manufacturers and suppliers of Le Keux’s Sweet Gum, “most useful for mounting photographs” and “sold by all stationers in bottles for 1s. each”.  The business expanded into records and leather goods as well as books, and offered a coffee-shop which became a favourite meeting-place for the citizenry.  It survived on even after Smart’s death at the age of 100 in 1965, at least until the early 1970s, known in its prime simply (from at least 1932) as the “The House of Andrews”.

As to the anonymous workers who must have produced this binding – of all the bookbinders living locally in Durham listed on the 1911 Census, the following were of an age to have been possibly working for Smart ten years earlier: George Bailes, Harry Herbert, Charles Hollis, Thomas Hopewell, George Kerr, William Leasdale, Ernest Lee, John Noble,  Thomas Ramsden, Thomas Henry Smith and Catherine Smith.  So – take your pick – probably one or more of them.

moses inscriptionThe book’s narrative does not of course end with the binding.  This was a prize binding for presentation and we know who won the prize.  A neat inscription gives us “J. R. Moses. (Second on College List).  Bede College.  1902”.   This  was John Robert Moses (1880-1917) – the twenty-two year old son of a coal-miner from the pit village of Tursdale, a few miles south of Durham.  He was still living at home with his parents at this date and, looked at in this light, you can almost feel the book radiating a sense of their parental pride at the achievement of their son.  We can readily imagine this beautiful book sitting as something of an object of wonder in their necessarily modest pit cottage.

mother-in-lawIn 1907 John Robert Moses married Jane Bormond Hutton (1868-1952) at Sunderland.  His wife was herself a teacher and the daughter of a local ship’s captain.  By 1911 they were living at 4 Guisborough Street, Sunderland, together with a rather formidable looking mother-in-law (yes, this really is Ann Bormond Hutton) – Moses by now teaching at a local elementary school.   No doubt the book remained in Sunderland with Jane Moses throughout the thirty-five years of her widowhood as a memento of her lost young husband.  The kind of book I very much like – a book on which to hang a story.  A fragment of a lost era.  A fragment of lost lives.  A survival from a city’s past.  And the sort of book it is still possible to collect for inexplicably little money.

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Friends in the North

The Smithsons

The Smithsons

A very pleasant night out in Newcastle a couple of weeks ago with Mr & Mrs Keel Row Bookshop – also known as Anthony Smithson and his wife Alice.  A Turkish supper in the lee of the mighty football stadium – good food and good company.  And, in Alice’s phrase, Newcastle seems to be the capital of still-cheap eating-out.  Anthony was of course full of news on the build-up to the inaugural York Antiquarian Book Seminar (YABS) next month.   Almost fully booked, it is all shaping very well indeed – driven along of course by Anthony’s own dynamic enthusiasm.  It simply wouldn’t be happening without him.  Alice is very much looking forward to it as well – the children are to be consigned to grand-parental custody for that week.

Anthony still can’t quite believe that all – yes, all – each and every one of his first-choice speakers for the course has agreed to turn up.  He regards it as a promoter might in having lined up a stellar cast.  Unwonted hyperbole for the rare book trade, perhaps – stellar is not, frankly, a word we regularly use of our colleagues – but looking at the faculty on the YABS website (in absolutely strictly alphabetical order) – Simon Beattie, Nigel Burwood (Any Amount of Books), Justin Croft, Adam Douglas of Peter Harrington Rare Books, Jonathan Kearns (Adrian Harrington Rare Books), Ed Maggs of Maggs Bros., Tim Pye (Curator of Printed Literary Sources 1501-1800 at the British Library), Sophie Schneideman,  Anthony himself, and Carl Williams, also of Maggs, together with the two guest speakers from the USA, Rob Rulon-Miller and Lorne Bair – it’s very difficult to disagree.  These are all outstanding booksellers, genuine stars of the book trade, and, just as impressively, drawn from right across the breadth and depth of the trade on all its levels, in all its many aspects and differing ways of doing things.

Just from the sections of the course handbook which have recently been passed to me by editor-in-chief Charles Cox for comment I can tell how good it is going to be.  If only this kind of advice and guidance had been available when I was starting out as a bookseller all those years ago.  If only!   All those years of learning things the hard way, all that learning by trial and error (almost entirely error) – so much of it could have been avoided or short-circuited with the kind of generosity the trade is now showing in putting on this kind of course.  So good is it going to be that I’m tempted to sign up myself (never entirely too old to learn – and we could all learn from this, however long we have been at it), except that I wouldn’t want to deprive a young bookseller or a would-be bookseller of the opportunity.  Last I heard there were just a couple of places left for this year.  Get there if you can – you will not regret it – all the details are on the YABS website (link in the blog-roll).

The God of the Tyne

The God of the Tyne

What I hadn’t previously realised about Anthony was how engrossed he is not just in the book world but in his own local community.  Not only does he run a bookshop and run around the country exhibiting at fairs, but he seems to be involved in just about everything happening on Tyneside.  Where he finds the time I have no idea.  One particularly entertaining story was about how he tracked down an early nineteenth-century wooden figurehead of the God of the Tyne, replete with a head-dress of flaming coals, pick and shovel, fish, nets and other items evoking local history and tradition.  The figurehead has very strong connections with the history of the local printing industry and now quite properly adorns and presides over the sparkling new Newcastle City Library – thanks almost entirely to Anthony’s efforts.  

The Keel Row Bookshop

The Keel Row Bookshop

The following morning, Anne went to pay homage to the River God (the photograph from her) and to explore that great and welcoming city of the north.  Meanwhile, I took myself out to North Shields to have a rummage around Anthony’s shop.  It was pretty busy for a Friday morning, people popping in and out, buying books, offering books, debating books.   Anthony gives a lesson to us all in being charming, attentive, patient and helpful to anyone and everyone.   At one point he scurried off to try and find a book for someone.  In his absence, she turned to another customer and said, “Isn’t this a wonderful shop?” – “Aye”, came the reply, “I don’t know anywhere else like this”.  They were right: it is a wonderful, wonderful, shop.  Although crammed to the rafters with books, it remains orderly and tidy.  Although full of books, there is barely a book which doesn’t look interesting on one level or another: books for the collector, certainly, but also second-hand books for the casual reader, books for the serious reader, books for the old, books for the young, books on every subject you can think of (and quite a few you can’t) – above all, books you would like to read or just to give to someone you know who would.  I found myself saying to myself like a mantra as I went round: That looks interesting, that looks interesting, that looks interesting, that looks interesting …  And better still, all reasonably priced.  A reminder of just how wonderful a good bookshop can be.  

I plucked out a boxful – mainly for stock, including one in a binding by Andrews of Durham which will probably feature here on the blog at some point, but a few others simply to read or pass on to friends.  A marvellous  shop.  A marvellous evening.  A marvellous morning.  Thank you, Anthony and Alice.     

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No Finer Sight

“There’s no finer sight in the world than that of a handsome woman bearing cakes” – this the (completely unsought) opinion of a man in the Warkworth tea-shop.  It struck me as a deeply profound and rather moving thought.  Substitute ‘books’ for ‘cakes’ and we might yet be in a perfect world. Possibly borderline sexist, but then the sight of handsome men bearing cakes is not one all that frequently met with, at least not in my experience (do correct me if I’m wrong).  Books, of course, are a very different matter.

We should have followed his example and gone for the cakes (the finest Victoria Sponge since the days of the late Queen Victoria herself), because the cream tea was dire.  The clue is in the name – cream (i.e. real cream, proper cream, not some anodyne surrogate) – it’s a necessary ingredient.  The well-attested medicinal properties and restorative powers of the true cream tea are as nothing without it – and we certainly needed restoring after a depressing visit to a truly ghastly bookshop elsewhere in Northumbria a couple of hours earlier.  The sort of shop that’s usually never open and when it is you wish it hadn’t been.

John Atkinson

John Atkinson

The memory didn’t truly disappear until the following morning when we went calling on John Atkinson at his new home just outside Darlington.  Here’s the restorative – a young bookseller with an eclectic and immaculate stock.  Just the books you need to complete or improve a twentieth-century collection.  Books I haven’t seen in years, books I’ve never seen (or at least not in this condition), the scarcer books, the rarities, the desirable books, the sought-after books, admirably dust-jacketed, often signed or inscribed, and surprisingly often with a long-forgotten or unknown wrap-around band.  John has something of a penchant for these ephemeral promotional bands and you can see why.  Here’s his copy of the London edition of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms (1929), intact in a pristine and fabulous dust-jacket by David Theyre Lee-Elliott, but also with the apparently undocumented puce-coloured wrap-around band carrying a quote from Arnold Bennett’s review – “This is a superb performance”.

13073910768This rather took me aback.  Firstly, I couldn’t off-hand recall having seen very many British examples of these wrap-around bands (or ‘flashes’ as they are sometimes called) from quite as early as this.  After much racking of brains (and several days later) I eventually recalled once having had a copy of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica (also 1929) which had one, and I’ve seen quite a few examples from the 1930s (with some rather earlier ones from the United States), but can anyone nominate an earlier British example?  That’s your challenge for this week.

But what really took me aback was this conjunction of Arnold Bennett and Ernest Hemingway, because, although I admire them both, they really don’t inhabit the same circles in my head.  Here’s Arnold Bennett, already past sixty, wealthy, famous, successful – a man of such prominence that straw was laid in the street to quiet the traffic as he lay dying a couple of years later (I believe the last Londoner so to be honoured) – still of course very popular with the common reader, but a man already much derided by the younger set, especially the Bloomsburyites, and not at all someone you would have expected to find championing the brash young American newcomer.  But then Bennett was always far more astute and far more modern in outlook than most of his critics – the proof is in this wrap-around band – lose it and we lose that thought.  That’s why the idiosyncrasies of the collectors who cherish such things must needs be nurtured.

There is, by the way (and I kid you not), a curious piece currently on the BBC website headed “Arnold Bennett: The Edwardian David Bowie?  Arnold Bennett is probably the most successful and famous British celebrity you’ve never heard of, unless you’ve tried the omelette that bears his name” – but I think this tells us more about the current state of the BBC than it does about book-collecting.

John Atkinson Rare & Fine BooksElsewhere in John’s stock there are many other wonderful things, including a book he asked me not to write about or illustrate in case someone wanted to buy it and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.  So I won’t tell you what it is.  He really knows and loves his books.  It’s a very impressive set-up, even if it’s all a far cry from the old-fashioned second-hand bookshop.  He’s well advanced down the curatorial wing of modern book-selling – and rightly so, we need to adapt, but the spark in his case was kindled by an old-fashioned chance first purchase from Anthony Smithson of the Keel Row Bookshop (of whom more anon).  Nothing special, a run-of-the-mill Ian Fleming I believe, but it lit the fire which diverted John from an academic career (he has a doctorate – phonetics, inflection, that sort of thing) into book-selling.  Academe’s loss and the book-trade’s gain.  His details are in the blog-roll to the right.

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N. Wesley Firth

Norman Wesley Firth

Norman Wesley Firth

A newish but really rather interesting customer got in touch the other day (a customer who first came to me through a perceptive between-the-lines reading of the blog, by the way).  He had a very particular reason for trying to assemble the works of Norman Firth – might I have anything hidden away in the deepest vaults?  He suspects that he is the only person in the world still collecting and reading Firth, although I’m not at all sure that the author of Spawn of the Vampire (1946) – and a man once known as “The Prince of the Pulp Pedlars” – can have been altogether so entirely forgotten.

As it happened, I had five Firths.  Details duly sent off.   All booksellers know what happens next: the answer routinely comes back that the customer already has all these, has had them for years, that these are the really common ones, do we have anything else? (i.e. what they really want are titles which are utterly impossible to find, may not even actually exist, and that certainly no-one has seen within living memory).   But this time, wonderful to relate, a circumstance at least as rare as the books themselves, this wasn’t the answer that came back.  Despite determined looking over the years, my customer didn’t have four of the five.  They are now winging their way to a new home – happiness all round.

The event seemed worth recording, if only because such things so seldom happen.  But the further thought occurred that there may perhaps be other Norman Firth titles lying hidden out there still looking for a happy home.  Over to you on that.  Only the difficult titles, of course, which don’t include the handful of hardbacks or anything else currently listed on the internet.  He usually published as N. Wesley Firth, but also used a multitude of pseudonyms, including Jackson Evans, Joel Johnson, Net Anson, Jackson Haines, Mac Raine, Rice Ackman and even Olga Hendry (his wife’s name).  Earl Ellison was his most regular nom-de-plume, but this requires care as the name was later taken over (1950 onwards) as a house-name by John Spencer & Co.  Leslie Halward was another of his regular pseudonyms, although this also requires care as there was another Leslie Halward, who had some fiction and an autobiography published by Methuen and Michael Joseph in the 1930s.  Other Firth pseudonyms may well now be lost in the mists of time.

His principal publishers were the quirky and related West London imprints of Bear, Hudson Limited and Hamilton & Co. (Stafford) Limited, as well as the (also inter-connected) Grant Hughes and John Spencer & Co.; other titles appeared from Utopian Publications and the Staffordshire imprints of Clifford Lewis and Curzon Publishing, as well as London’s Brown, Watson Limited and Mitre Press, and Pillar Publishing of Dublin.  He also did some publishing on his own account, e.g. the Gaze Publishing title depicted, published from his home at 66 Park Road, West Birkenhead.

Institutional holdings of his books are sketchy – about twenty titles published as N. Wesley Firth; three Olga Hendry titles in the Castleton series published by the Mitre Press; a couple each by Leslie Halward, Joel Johnson and Jackson Evans, and a western from Rice Ackman.  This can only represent a fraction of his output.  In the course of his short life (he died at the age of twenty-nine) his output was prodigious and covered a huge range: gangster stories, crime stories, thrillers, romances, westerns, some science fiction, sporty stories and even school stories – his Harcourt series containing distinct echoes of Frank Richards and Greyfriars.  He is said to have been capable of punching out 6,000 words at a sitting – and on occasion to have supplied single-handed the entire contents of magazines like Futuristic Stories and Strange Adventures, using a variety of different names.

Piccadilly NightsSome of the titles illustrated here give the flavour both of his breadth and versatility, as well as his strengths and weaknesses.  Piccadilly Nights (written as Jackson Evans) is ostensibly “a new and daring novel of London’s haunts and night life”.  It’s in fact written in the typical style of a American gangster novel, with most of the characters sounding more American than English (Bats O’Reilly excepted – his Irish brogue gets subtly stronger the more menacing he becomes): but this was presumably precisely what the publishers (Grant Hughes) wanted.  It’s a story which begins on Merseyside with a botched gangland execution.  The killer flees to London, falls in with a naked beauty discovered in her bath via a fire-escape, wins some money wrestling against “The Cockney Maniac”, and pulls off a nicely-tuned and delightfully plausible mail-order scam involving a wholly fictitious naughty book (this must surely be based on fact from the murky underworld of pulp publishing).  He then muscles in on the turf of London’s pin-table racketeers and marries bizarrely at gun-point.  There is precious little night-life and the star-crossed lovers, cabin-in-the-forest ending is straight out of American film-noir – I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the very film.

Dangerous DamesIn contrast, although Dangerous Dames has an ostensibly American narrator, the tone is almost entirely British stiff upper-lip –  “I had only gone as far as the end of the street, when that quality known as chivalry made me stop and think”.  Neither the title nor the leggy H. W. Perl brunette on the cover seem to have any particular relationship to the plot (or any relationship at all, come to that – they must have been designed for another book altogether).  It relates the tale of a Hollywood film company down on its luck and resolved to risk everything on making an epic blockbuster filmed on location in Egypt.  “The Mummy Walks” is re-titled “Flame of the Pyramids” and strange things start happening almost at once.  En route to Egypt there is a pleasant glimpse of post-war 1940s London, “now the lights were up and the look of strain had gone from the faces”.  A scene in the Egyptian Room of the just re-opened British Museum introduces a mysterious English blonde, who issues a warning.  That night a cameraman is murdered.  The mystery blonde later turns up on the ship, leaves it mysteriously, but crops up again in Egypt.  After that it all gets a bit Indiana Jones, bad guys, whips, drug-dens, guns and pyramids.  Occasionally we feel the mounting pressures of deadline, word-count and a need to unravel the plot in a hurry – “No words of mine are apt enough to describe that scene, I will leave it to your imagination mainly …”  – but on balance it’s all rather fun.

PossessionPossession is a romance of what is sometimes condescendingly called the mill-girl novelette type.   Actress turns down Hollywood – the love of a good man, the much more enticing lure of a bad man, eternal triangle, twist in the tail, all of that.  Borrowed Love (written as Joel Johnson), with its similarly poignant Perl artwork, has all the look of something cut from the self-same cloth: in fact it commences with the brutal escape of an English deserter from the Foreign Legion and a getaway to Marseilles, where death stalks and treachery and retribution abound.  Studio Revels begins with a girl from a New York sweatshop replying to a curious modelling advertisement and hastens on to the “inside story” of Greenwich Village and “queer, crazy characters, torn from a page of life, the riotous studio parties, the life of a professional model, and the excitement of the hunt for a crazed strangler”, which must have ticked any number of marketable boxes for the publishers (Hamilton & Co).  Firth undoubtedly knew his business and the dreams and foibles of his readership.

Borrowed LoveAs is often the case, the only account of his life I’m aware of which goes beyond the merely perfunctory comes from the pen of Steve Holland, who devotes several pages to Firth in The Mushroom Jungle.   I can only add a little to that.  Firth is usually said to have been born in Birkenhead on 20th October 1920, but I believe in fact that he was born slightly earlier on the 8th October – and at Crumpsall, just north of Manchester.  Certainly his birth was registered, as plain Norman Firth, at nearby Prestwich, a mile or two from Crumpsall.  His parents, Henry Wesley Firth and Mary Elizabeth Tattersall, had married in the same area in 1911 – and Norman Firth appears to have been the youngest of several children born in the locality.  His father is said to have been a theatrical producer of some kind, hence perhaps the theatricality of some of Firth’s stories, but I have been unable to verify this.  Henry Wesley Firth’s own father had been a draper in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, and that appears to have been his son’s occupation too.  In 1901, at the age of twenty-three, he was certainly working as an assistant in the drapery department of a large London store.  Mary Elizabeth Tattersall was a local young woman (from Gorton): both her parents worked as cotton-twisters in the Manchester mills (which I suppose gives a certain poignancy to the mill-girl novelettes).  The name Wesley, by the way, seems to relate to the Wesleyan sympathies of the Dewsbury Firths.  Henry Wesley Firth was baptised at the local Wesleyan chapel in 1877, and the name was commonly used as a middle-name in the wider family.  Although it was not formally part of Norman Firth’s name (at least as evidenced by birth, marriage and death registrations), it’s not difficult to see why he used it.

Studio RevelsDuring the war, Norman Firth worked on the assembly lines of an aircraft factory (probably Rootes at Speke).  He married the seventeen-year-old Olga Hendry (1927-1996) at Birkenhead in 1944 – and by the following year he was published author, with the short story collection This is Murder, Lady and the novel Murder for Sale, both appearing in that year.  From there, the pace of his writing grew exponentially.  He lived in London for a time in 1948, staying in a mews cottage at 22 Roland Way, attached to the house in Roland Gardens belonging to Benson Herbert.  Herbert (1912-1991), science-fiction writer, editor and publisher (Utopian) was one of Firth’s major supporters in terms of constant commissions.  Firth was, however, already becoming increasingly ill, and returned to Birkenhead, where he died of tuberculosis on 13th December 1949, leaving a twenty-two year old widow and a young daughter.  His relentless writing round the clock over a period of five years had earned him a little more than the average working wage – his effects were declared at a not unreasonable £1,449,10s.10d when probate was granted to Olga Firth in February 1950.  She re-married at Birkenhead in 1956 and I believe his daughter later emigrated to Australia.

The only one of his books for which I have found contemporary reviews is When Shall I Sleep Again? – a James M. Cain sort of tale posthumously published by Gifford in hardback in 1950, dedicated to Olga, and later reissued by the Thriller Book Club.  Here’s what the Western Daily News had to say (1st August 1950): “There is ‘strong meat’ in this novel of sex and intrigue in a small mid-Western town following the arrival there of a fugitive from justice in New York.  The story is one of murder, jealousy and spitefulness, and is so well told that the reader will probably gain every satisfaction in the fate that overcomes the man and woman (one can hardly say hero and heroine) who are the main characters.  This is a really vigorous thriller with an astonishing climax”.

“So well told” – yes, Firth had the gift of a natural writer in rapidly conjuring scenes and characters.  What he writes, we see.  Great literature? – obviously not, but he apparently had ambitions to write more seriously one day.  His colleague and contemporary Bevis Winter felt that his “vast store of knowledge” and “grinding experience” stood him in good enough stead.  This may well be so, but I suspect that his style of writing, more filmic than truly theatrical, cutting freely from scene to scene, might well have steered him towards writing for television, as a number of his contemporaries did.  We shall simply never know.  Let me know if you find anything.

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100 MapsAn unwonted spell of quiet here on the blog lately.  Apologies for that – but not entirely from lack of activity.  A bit of holiday and a long-postponed attempt at reading The Alexandria Quartet in its entirety aside, head and hands have both been full with a variety of projects:  a stint of teaching at the London Rare Books School, with a resultant essay to be guided; sorting out issues on the ABA website;  keeping an eye on the ABA Twitter account;  putting together a manual (of sorts) on book-cataloguing for booksellers;  a stupid row with the entirely ridiculous NatWest Bank;  delving away into the recondite by-ways and back-alleys of post-war British pulp fiction (more on that next week);  planning a couple of bookish safari trips for August (one northern, one western);  trying to pull together the speakers for the coming year’s monthly Senate House seminars on book-collecting – a splendid line-up already in prospect:  Tim Bryars and Tom Harper (British Library) this October on twentieth-century maps – this roughly to coincide with the publication of their “A History of the Twentieth Century in 100 Maps” at the end of September.  I’ve seen some advance proofs: it’s an amazing and extraordinarily impressive book, which will challenge and change some of our assumptions both about the history of the twentieth century and the way in which we use maps.  That’s the Christmas presents sorted for all of you.

YoYoI can’t get hold of Stephen Foster, who is away on holiday, but a decision made in his absence and (like it or not) he’ll be speaking at Senate House in November;  Christopher Sokol in December – topic to be confirmed;  Neil Pearson in January – on the Paris pornographers, the cultural atmosphere of Paris between the two World Wars, and its contribution to the defeat of literary censorship;  Charles Cox in April on the Galsworthy Bubble and other freaks of fashion in book-collecting;  both Christopher Edwards and Sophie Schneideman to be slotted in somewhere, a couple of others pending.

Adrian Seville and Tom Harper

Adrian Seville and Tom Harper

A day off from all of that yesterday – one of those delightful days which we all need to refresh and reinvigorate the spirit.  A day with Adrian Seville in the company of Ashley Baynton-Williams and Tom Harper from the British Library (and ex Jonathan Potter).  Adrian is of course one of the great collectors of our time – a man who has marked out his field, enriched it, changed the way we view it, and built a new research resource almost certainly unmatched in any institutional collection.  His collection of printed games is quite magnificent and will be duly honoured with an exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York in 2016. (Many of the games are illustrated on the Giochi dell’Oca website, link in the blog-roll).

Ashley Baynton-Williams

Ashley Baynton-Williams

And of course it is only in seeing the games all together and studying their similarities, their development and, crucially, their subtle or not-so-subtle differences, that we realise how much we can learn from them.  They mirror their times in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways,  and when Adrian describes himself as a cultural historian – that is precisely what he is.

BalloonsIt was a day spent in discussing engravers, printers and publishers (huge overlap with the map trade, of course), but also in unlooked-for and unexpected connections between the British trade and its continental counterparts.  One newly acquired game had thrown up a previously unknown maker – Dewhirst & Co. of London with a very sophisticated game dating from the time of the American Civil War.  The Great BlockadeA game in which risk is calculated with unusual delicacy, but also one which is a whole history lesson in itself.  (Dewhirst proves stubborn – a very unusual name in London at that date, but so far I have only been able to identify a carpenter, a schoolmaster and a needlewoman – none of whom seem particularly likely to have produced this: more work to be done, this not aided by the ridiculous decision of the COPAC authorities to disable for the time being the best part of its search mechanism).

All Over the HouseConversation shaded off into discussion of the mystical powers attributed to individual numbers in the past, numerology and the Cabala; the extraordinary longevity of the Game of the Goose; the significance of the death-square; geographical games; map-based games; geographical playing-cards; games of the seasons; the earliest London-published map of London (on a playing-card?);  the significance of decoration; the history of ballooning; the Jansenist heresy (one extraordinarily heretical game); The Geographerpolitics, satire, travel and sport; the representation of games in art; the origins of the skull-and-crossbones symbol; paddle-ships; the Thief-Taker General; the pricing of rare and possibly unique material; the unforeseen consequences and the effect of bibliographies on pricing and the market; the foibles of some of our colleagues; the Americas Cup; a 200-year old ivory yo-yo, and a guessing game as to who the apparently real people were whose portraits were given on a 1790 English game on the ages of man. Here’s “The Geographer” – any suggestions?

Noble Game of the SwanI was very pleased to be able to add this magnificent beast to the collection – William Darton’s 1821 Noble Game of the Swan.  An example of the game with a pleasant little history of its own: it once belonged to Percy Muir, ABA President in 1946-1947, and was item No. 961 in Muir’s catalogue of the National Book League’s May 1946 exhibition of Children’s Books of Yesterday.  It was a ground-breaking exhibition, with the foresight to include games, puzzles and peep-shows, and the present game not only still has its beautifully hand-coloured card case, but its printed rules and even its 1946 exhibition label.  AutomobileNor was this Adrian’s only purchase of the day: arriving at about the same time as we did was this delightful game in a 1933 issue of the French magazine Vu.  For all its twentieth-century trappings of automobiles and sharp photography, it’s a traditional Game of the Goose – the death-square here in the form of a caped gendarme ready to inflict dire consequences on speeding or careless motorists (and even a suggestion of paradise as a giant car-park).

Panorama of LondonYet another recent acquisition (this collection is still growing) was this humdinger of a London game bought from Robert Frew at the recent London Map Fair (I may just possibly be able to put my hands on another one of these if anyone’s interested).  All in all, a nigh-on perfect summer’s day.  Good company, good friends, and a community of interests.  Thank you Adrian – already looking forward to the next visit.

Posted in Book Collecting, Engravers, Mapsellers | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Edwin & Irene Turvey : Modern Fiction Ltd.

modern fictionMy post a few months back on the pulp-fiction writer Nat Karta elicited a welcome amount of interest – at least amongst the cognoscenti who recognise and embrace the Robert Escarpit distinction between “connoisseur reading” and “consumer reading”.  Both bibliographically and culturally the favourite British “consumer reading” of the mid twentieth century has all but been consigned to a historical black hole.  The truth is that writers like “Nat Karta”, “Hank Janson” and “Darcy Glinto” heavily outsold all the Evelyn Waughs, Graham Greenes and Anthony Powells of the literary establishment – and that alone surely makes them worthy of a little more attention.  Their books too are now both rare and very poorly and patchily represented in the national collections, which makes them worthy of bookselling attention too.

Henri DupresThe publisher Edwin Henry Turvey (1902-1981) was one of the key figures, but I suspect you will search in vain for any reliable biographical information about him.  He was in fact born in Kilburn in North London – the son of a barman.  He married Annie Smith (also known as Annie Kenna) at Islington in 1929, the couple living initially at an address in Clerkenwell.  He first came to public notice in brief mentions in the newspapers in late 1938 – the Portsmouth Evening News of Wednesday 14th December carried the following terse report: “Pleading guilty at the Central Criminal Court yesterday to a charge of selling obscene literature, Edwin Henry Turvey (36), a salesman, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment”.  To judge from his later output what the court judged obscene (probably an imported American magazine) was probably no more than, at best (or at worst), mildly salacious, but his life was perhaps already becoming problematic in other ways.  The electoral register for that year finds him, properly enough at a prisonish address in Parkhurst Court, Holloway, with Annie – but it also finds him (lightly disguised as Edwin John Turvey) living with a woman calling herself Irene Lilian Turvey at 160 Lordship Road in Shoreditch.

Ben SartoIt’s certainly the same man, because it was with Irene Lilian Turvey that he set up the publishing house of Modern Fiction Ltd. in 1943, originally operating from Holloway in North London, but soon from a warehouse in Morwell Street off the Tottenham Court Road.  Irene Lilian Taylor (1915-1992), to give her true name, was the daughter of a Lincolnshire farm-worker and a mainstay of the business, which rapidly developed a stable of authorial pseudonyms which became both highly popular and instantly recognisable – “Henri Duprès” for saucy romances, “Ben Sarto” for Chicago or New York set American-style thrillers – these both in fact the work (at least initially) of the moonlighting journalist Frank Dubrez Fawcett (1891-1968) – and probably the best known name of all, “Griff”,  with a whole series of hard-boiled gangster novels begun by the bibulous Ernest Lionel McKeag (1896-1974) and later taken over by other writers. Many of the earlier titles had cover designs by the mysterious H. W. Perl – a variable but at best a highly gifted artist, with a sensitivity and subtlety rare in pulp publishing. Quite who he (or perhaps she) was no-one seems to know, but my guess would be either Herman Perl or Hyman Perl (Pearl), both refugees from continental Europe and both of whom died in north London in 1957.

Irene Lilian TurveyIn 1945 Edwin and Irene were both registered at a residential address at 28 Hersham Road, Walton on Thames, and Irene formally changed her name from Taylor to Turvey by an announcement in the local press in 1946 – this later confirmed by a formal deed announced in the London Gazette on 12th September 1947.  The couple were eventually to marry at St. Pancras late in 1964.

GriffThe “Griff” and “Ben Sarto” lines developed by Modern Fiction became, for a time, among the best-selling of all the pulps and the Turveys were able to diversify. They acquired their own printers, taking over Craig Mitchell & Co., and renaming the company with Edwin Turvey’s initials, E.H.T. Printers Ltd.  The business was reshaped to some extent in 1949, with another London Gazette announcement saying that the Turvey partnership in a subsidiary business as printers, publishers, librarians, newsagents and stationers at 192 Pershore Street in  Birmingham, trading as the Fulton Publishing Co., was to be dissolved and would be continued by Irene alone.  The same change was decreed at the same time for their Pillar Box Library at 25 Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill – a little local business which appears to have been run by Edwin Turvey’s mother, Annetta Elizabeth Turvey, until her death in 1955.

Spike GordonMeanwhile the Modern Fiction output was going from strength to strength, increasing their output from two to four new titles a month and introducing new brand-named authors like “Hank Spencer” and “Spike Gordon”, the latter apparently a pseudonym of another serial churner out of pulp novels, John Russell Fearn (1908-1960), perhaps best known for his science fiction.

Hank SpencerBut the days of the post-war pulp phenomenon were numbered.  A spate of book-bannings, some high-profile obscenity trials and prison sentences for publishers, the spread of television viewing down the social scale, and the rise of more mainstream paperback publishing all played their part.  From a peak in 1953-1954, Modern Fiction Ltd. fell into a rapid and terminal decline. An announcement, again in the London Gazette, on 29th July 1955, warned that under the 1948 Companies Act , “unless cause is shown to the contrary”, Modern Fiction Ltd. would be struck off the Register and the company dissolved.  Six months later, on 27th January 1956, the company was duly struck off – although there seems to be some evidence that it limped on for a few more years in some kind of twilight existence.

Quite what became of the Turveys thereafter I have been unable to discover, although it’s difficult not to imagine that this resourceful and inventive pair would not have flourished in some sphere or other.  The printing arm of the business, E. H. T. Printers Ltd., certainly survived until after Edwin Turvey’s death in Surrey in 1981, it being voluntarily wound up by Irene Turvey (still at 28 Hersham Road, Walton-on-Thames) in the spring of 1982.

For some more Modern Fiction titles and notes on the individual books – please see

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Past Presidents

Elizabeth Strong, Sandy Critchley, Robert Frew, Keith Fletcher, Marina Fletcher, John Critchley

Elizabeth Strong, Sandy Critchley, Robert Frew, Keith Fletcher, Marina Fletcher, John Critchley

I know that some of you appreciate and enjoy the occasional post I put up both here and on the ABA website about various past presidents of the ABA (at least one person has told me so).  What you may not know is that the past presidents aren’t in fact all long since deceased and that the surviving ones all have an annual lunch together.  This year, as the most recent of that number, it fell to me to issue the invitations.  This is in itself was an agreeable wander down Memory Lane.

John Lawson

John Lawson

To take them in order of seniority, Martin Hamlyn was president in 1972-1973.  Well up in years now and unable to attend the lunch, but he is still living in Stamford.  He sounded chipper enough on the telephone when I spoke to him and sends his good wishes to everyone.  John Lawson, president in 1976-1978, and another who has not yet embraced e-mail, had to pull out of the lunch at the last minute.  It was his 82nd birthday last week and his family had hijacked him for a surprise outing.  Family always comes first, obviously, but a treat as always to bump into him in the queue at Olympia the other day.  Here he is – still keen as mustard, he had already bagged a couple of purchases from the Hand & Flower fair over the road.  Best wishes from him as well.

Another who regrettably couldn’t make it was Raymond Kilgarriff, president in 1978-1980.  He also had a family engagement, but sad that he had to miss the annual lunch for what was probably the first time.  He tells me he can remember one of them held in Oxfordshire at which the great Sir Basil Blackwell (born in 1889 and president in 1925-1926) was the host – it’s a priceless memory spanning almost the entire history of the ABA and I have urged him to write it up for us.

Simpsons in the StrandKeith Fletcher was president in 1982-1984 and was the most senior of the company when we assembled at Simpson’s in the Strand last Sunday for the 2014 lunch.  He and his wife Marina were both in good and entertaining form.  Clare Perkins (president 1984-1986) was unable to attend, but is now living in England again (Hampshire) after her sojourn overseas and sends her good wishes.  Senga Grant (president 1986-1988), now living in Dorset and a long way from her native Scotland, was in especially good form at our end of the table, with a fund of pleasing and occasionally downright indiscreet reminiscence.  Who would have thought that there were rival factions on the ABA Committee as far back as the 1950s, when her husband Ian became president for the first time?

David Brass (president 1990-1992) was exhibiting at Olympia last week, so I had a chat with him there, but he and his wife Caroline were long since booked on a thirty-fifth anniversary cruise and had to be somewhere rather more adjacent to the Mediterranean than Simpson’s by lunchtime on Sunday.  Peter Miller (president 1996-1998) and his wife Liza also couldn’t make it down, but Elizabeth Strong (president 2000-2001) could.  A pleasure to see her, as always.  She has just e-mailed to say how much she “enjoyed the company, the food, the delicious Sancerre and the elegant surroundings”.  All just as it should be.

Adrian Harrington (president in 2001-2003) and his wife Hermoine were also hijacked by a surprise family occasion – and old friends  Jonathan Potter (president 2003-2005) and his wife couldn’t make it up from Bath.  Robert Frew (president 2005-2007) had less far to come and was able to join us, as elegant as ever.  Julian Rota (president 2009-2011) and Dorothea were others who weren’t able to attend, and nor, unfortunately, could the presidential spouses customarily invited – Charlotte Bayntun-Coward, Colleen Vaughan, Shelia Minet and Jenny Shelley.  Best wishes from all of them.

A slightly disappointing turn-out in the end, we might have done better not to have tacked it on to Olympia, but we were joined by John and Sandy Critchley – appointed as sort of honorary past presidents by popular acclaim.  A toast was of course drunk to all our absent friends – and the food, the wine and the memories flowed.

Robert Frew, Keith Fletcher, Marina Fletcher, John Critchley, Senga Grant

Robert Frew, Keith Fletcher, Marina Fletcher, John Critchley, Senga Grant

Posted in ABA, ABA Past Presidents, Booksellers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rare Book Week – Olympia 2014

Olympia Poster

From Antiquariat Johannes Müller

I was asked yesterday at the ABA Council meeting if I could institute a live Instagram feed for next week’s Olympia Book Fair, synchronised to the Fair’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.  Or something along those lines, anyway.  What sort of question is that to ask an old age pensioner, I thought to myself – but then looking round the table it seemed reasonably clear that I was the only person there (including , I very strongly suspect,  the person who asked) who had the vaguest idea what the question meant.  The answer obviously is, No I couldn’t – Don’t be silly – but I do know a young woman who could, so if you are a devotee of such things, it may well come to pass.

Only in the ABA of course would an old age pensioner be put in charge of the Fair’s social media output.  As I was told off last year for reporting on the Fair before the official press release had been prepared and I had been told what I was supposed to say, I thought I would pre-empt matters this year and write a report before the Fair even opens.  If you want instant and Instagram, let’s go one better and have pre-instant.  Here’s my report of an event that hasn’t happened yet.

Rare Book WeekThe Fair of course is only part of what has come to be known as London Rare Book Week.  A generous week, as it lasts eight days,  and an abundant week, as it includes seven separate fairs dotted around different parts of London.  The calculation is that more than six hundred exhibitors are involved – it must surely be the world’s biggest celebration of rare and collectable books and all the allied matter that goes with them – maps, prints, manuscripts, photographs, ephemera, etc.  It has become the ultimate unmissable week in the calendar of the rare book world.

twitter_biggerEphemera SocietyIt all kicks off next Sunday (May 18th) with the Bloomsbury Summer Book Fair at the Royal National Hotel – over 120 dealers there, while round the corner at the Holiday Inn, the Ephemera Society will be holding its Summer Special Fair.

Hand & FlowerABA Olympia 2014On Wednesday and Thursday (May 21st-May 22nd) there is a two-day book fair at the Hand and Flower, just over the road from Olympia.  The main event, the ABA’s three-day London International Antiquarian Book Fair, as it’s formally called, with somewhere around 180 exhibitors, opens at Olympia’s National Hall at 2pm on the Thursday (May 22nd).  Opening hours are 2pm-8pm on the Thursday, 11am-7pm on Friday and 11am-5pm on Saturday.

PBFAphotographfairOn the Friday and Saturday a free shuttle bus from Olympia will happily ferry you on to the Provincial Booksellers’ Fairs Association’s own international event at the ILEC Conference Centre – over 100 more exhibitors there.  And if you have the stamina and the money still to spend, the week ends back in Bloomsbury with the Bloomsbury Ephemera Fair at the Royal National Hotel and the London Photograph Fair at the Bloomsbury Holiday Inn.

OvergroundThese are all fine and worthy events, and I hope to get round and buy things at most of them, but it’s Olympia that really catches the imagination.  I’m looking forward to a record-breaking event, sales and numbers of visitors climbing to all-time highs.  One of the drawbacks of Olympia has always been the perception of its relative inaccessibility by public transport, but it does have its own railway station and now that the London Overground has been fully linked up it is much easier to get to than ever before.

526787And it’s well worth travelling to.  The sheer range and diversity of what is on offer, brought to us by the cream of booksellers from all round the world is just astonishing.  Here’s a copy of Martin Waldseemüller’s “Cosmographiae Introductio”  of 1507.  Exhibited at the fair by Daniel Crouch Rare Books, it is of course famous as the book which named America – here’s the passage in translation: “in the sixth climatic region, towards the Antarctic, are situated the extreme part of Africa, recently discovered, the Islands of Zanzibar, Java Minor and Seula, and the fourth part of the world which, since it was discovered by Amerigo[Vespucci], it is permissible to call ‘Amerigen’, that is, land of Amerigo or America”.  How utterly extraordinary that we can walk in off the street and meet this book – a book which would form the centrepiece of any exhibition on the Americas anyone might ever care to put on.  And not only meet it, but even, if your pockets are deep enough, buy it and take it home with you.

AudubonStaying with the Americas for a moment, here’s a copy of John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America” (Unsworth’s Antiquarian Booksellers), the first American edition, Philadelphia 1840-1844.  Five hundred of the most extraordinarily beautiful colour plates ever produced.  A copy once owned by Congressman Owen Jones of Pennsylvania (1819-1878), who fought in the Civil War, and which has remained in private hands ever since.

VolvelleAnd staying with cosmography for a moment here’s a copy of Peter Apian’s “Cosmographia”, Antwerp 1540 (Librairie Pierre Coumans) – one of the most important geographical texts of the Renaissance, incorporating as it does the earliest printed description of triangulation.  It has its own importance in the history of the Americas, with an early description, but what is remarkable about this copy is that the four delicate and intricate paper volvelles are all still in perfect condition and working order.

PortaElsewhere we find another famous book in Renaissance science, the first edition in English of Giambattista della Porta’s “Natural Magic”, 1658 (Roger Gaskell Rare Books). “Porta was the first to give a coherent description of the camera obscura, and the first to report adding a concave lens to the aperture.  He also juxtaposed concave and convex lenses and reports various experiments with them. He was one of the first to suggest the combination of lenses to form a telescope or microscope”.  

Restoration BindingPerhaps not your thing, although how anyone could fail to want this I can’t imagine.  How about something a little different – this lovely English Restoration binding from H. M. Fletcher, “fully gilt with a large diamond lozenge centre-piece and corners made up of volutes, circles and dots and edged with drawer-handles, at each corner of the diamond lozenge a distinctive flower tool with two leaves, combed marbled endpapers, all edges gilt”.

Kelmscott ChaucerBindings of all kinds will be on display – here’s something spectacular: one of only forty-eight copies of the Kelmscott Chaucer (1896) “bound in white pigskin at the Doves Bindery under the supervision of T. J. Cobden-Sanderson to a design by William Morris …  with the original clasps, stamped ‘The Doves Bindery 1899′ on the lower turn-in, housed in a morocco backed clamshell box lettered on the spine in Chaucer type”.  Head to Sophie Schneideman Rare Books on Stand C01 to see this one.  SellarsMore modern still is this striking David Sellars binding on a copy of Paul Nash’s “Genesis: Twelve Woodcuts”  1924 – “a spine of Nigerian goatskin, sides with tie-dyed pigskin. Recessed onlays of pigskin and vellum, dyed and coloured. Onlaid goatskin titling, gold and black tooling. Marbled paper endpapers by Jill Sellars” (York Modern Books).

GlitteringBut if we like William Morris, which of course we do, here’s something else – this time from Knuf Rare Books – another Kelmscott, “The Story of the Glittering Plain” 1894, the illustrated edition with twenty-three wood engravings after Walter Crane.

Tea-TreeEverywhere we look there is something to admire, envy, covet, drool over.  I’m charmed by this, John Coakley Lettsom’s “The Natural History of the Tea-Tree, with Observations on the Medical Qualities of Tea, and Effects of Tea-Drinking” 1772 (Marrin’s Bookshop).  This is Lettsom the Quaker physician and philanthropist, founder of the Medical Society of London, co-founder of the Royal Humane Society, and the man unfortunately remembered in contemporary doggerel as:

I, John Lettsom / Blisters, bleeds and sweats ’em. / If, after that, they please to die, / I, John – Letts-’em.

BaskervillesInvisible ManOld literary favourites are to be found everywhere – here are a handsome first edition of the “Hound of the Baskervilles” 1902, from Bow Windows Book Shop, and a really rather nice copy of “The Invisible Man” 1897 from Aquila Books.  Jonkers Rare Books are Wizard of Ozbringing this presentation copy of Frank L. Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” 1900, in the primary binding and inscribed by both author and illustrator – “in very many respects the ultimate copy of this book”.

PostmanGinger ManIf your taste runs a touch more modern than that, then here’s a delightful copy of James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” 1934 (with a signed photograph of the author tucked inside) from Lucius Books, or a sparkling copy of  J. P. Donleavy’s “The Ginger Man” 1955 from Neil Pearson Rare Books – the first issue from, suitably enough, the Olympia Press, which took on the book after it had already been “rejected by upwards of thirty publishers on the grounds of obscenity”.   Hitch HikerMore modern still is an inscribed first hardback edition of Douglas Adams’ “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” 1979 – first state of the jacket of course(Hyraxia Books).

These are all known and desirable rarities and priced accordingly, but there is plenty at the fair to suit the more modest pocket.  BraqueI’m rather taken by these mid twentieth-century “Derrière le Miroir” magazines with artwork by Bazaine, Braque, Giacometti , Miro, etc., being brought to the Fair by Graham York Rare Books and by no means expensive.  If Graham has already sold them, as I fear he may have done, then track down Angus O’Neill on the Omega Bookshop stand – he probably has some.

myrioramaAnd of course it’s not just books.  All manner of other things.  What about a myriorama? – yes it’s a word.  Look it up.  A simple device to produce endless differing landscapes.  Here are two: one from Susanne Schulz-Falster in its original box and another by John Heaviside Clark from Forest Books, also in its original box – “The 16 hand-coloured cards, each with a landscape view, when placed together form a single panoramic view which is capable of rearrangement to form a endless variety of differing scenes. myrioramaThe subject typically shows a lake-shore with trees, figures, and animals in the foreground, island-castles and ships in the middle distance, and a background of mountains. It is claimed that Clark’s set of sixteen cards are capable of 20,922,789,880,000 permutations”.

As if all these treasures and many more were not enough, there are also guided tours, events and demonstrations, “free, fun and fascinating” workshops and special activities for children, and so much more.  All the details at


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Comics Unmasked

Roy of the Rovers

Roy of the Rovers

Comics to me have always been associated solely with childhood and early attempts at pictorially assisted reading.  Moving on from Desperate Dan and Dennis the Menace (never really understood that whole Beano/Dandy rivalry), carefully skirting round the significantly more menacing Beryl the Peril, at all costs trying to avoid the more improving varieties of comic well-meaning parents and sometimes aunts would try to foist on us – the Eagle was founded by a vicar, for heaven’s sake – we arrived at those happy and wholesome days of Roy of the Rovers in the Tiger and the amazing Wilson the Wonder Athlete in (I think) the Wizard.  Then, our core values for better or for worse now firmly set, our intuitive understanding of the British class system polished and perfected by Lord Snooty and his pals, we discovered books.  And moved on.

Jamie Hewlett poster, photographed by Tony Antoniou

Jamie Hewlett poster, photographed by Tony Antoniou

The new Comics Unmasked : Art and Anarchy in the UK ( exhibition at the British Library compels a rethink.  Comics aren’t just for kids the curators tell us right at the outset.  And of course they are not.  Elsewhere in the world – in the USA, in Japan, across Europe – they are far more part of the cultural mainstream.  Yet the British contribution has been and is immense.  Their impact on our lives is greater than we always recognise. Thanks to copyright deposit, the BL’s collections are unrivalled.  Time to get these things out of storage and re-examine them.

Picture-driven narratives date back to the walls of prehistoric caves.  Take a look at the marriage of pictures and text in Egyptian tomb-paintings or in mediaeval manuscripts.  Look again at the Bayeux Tapestry.  The comic strip has a very distinguished ancestry.  The oldest item in the exhibition is actually a German block-book of the 1470s (no picture in the press pack, I’m sad to say) – because this Book of the Apocalypse has everything modern about the comic or comic book already in place: narrative via diagrammatic drawings in sequential panels; expository captions; speech and thought balloons; angels and dragons for good measure – it’s a comic.

Adrian Edwards, the British Library’s Head of Printed Historical Resources and one of the three curators of the exhibition, was telling me about it when I saw him the other week.  I have to say I remained slightly sceptical, but when he was explaining it again today to a wider audience and had it open in front of him, there was no gainsaying what he said – it’s a comic.  I happened to exchange a glance with Roly Keating, head of the BL, at this point.  He was persuaded too.  Go and see it.

More or less everything else in the exhibition is British, the 200 or more items on display broken up into six broad themes.  Mischief and Mayhem offers a thought-provoking look at the boundaries of acceptable, slapstick, comic-book violence and real-world violence.  Thoughts too on censorship.  As far as we know, the first ever British exhibition of comics was put on by the National Union of Teachers in 1954.  Not, as you might think, to promote comics as congenial aids to reading, but in an attempt to ban children from access to this harmful and damaging material.  Although they managed to promote an Act of Parliament, the whole thing backfired and made comics more popular than ever – but that’s the NUT for you.

Ally Sloper 1874

Ally Sloper 1874

What does come across though is how subversive some comic characters are.  Dennis the Menace we know, but the first great comic superstar was Ally Sloper, dissolute, bottle-nosed, Cockney chancer, forever sloping off down alleyways to avoid unfortunate consequences – the absolute antithesis of the decent, upright and self-improving working man.  The Victorians adored him from his first appearance in Judy in 1867, written by Charles Ross and illustrated by his wife Emilie de Tessier under her Marie Duval pseudonym.  The eventual spin-off, Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday, began publication in 1884 and is thought to have clocked up sales of 350,000 a week.  We are used to comic characters being turned into films – Ally Sloper was even before 1900.

It was at just about this period that we began to call these things comics.  Alfred Harmsworth’s Comic Cuts, which began publication in 1890 seems to have sealed if not actually created the usage (OED cites one slightly equivocal example from 1889).

Professor Peabody

Professor Peabody

The To See Ourselves section of the exhibition examines the way social values, social types and stereotypes, are portrayed in comics.  Not hard to see that the prejudices, tacit assumptions, weaknesses and blind-spots of each generation will bob to the surface, but there is the occasional surprise.  I was never a fan of the interminable Dan Dare (The story so far … To be continued), but I did enjoy Adrian’s account of how for episode after episode after episode there was a shadowy, but brainy and powerful ‘Professor’ in the background, often mentioned but never seen.  When finally the professor appeared, it was as a woman – and a young one.  That must have woken a few boys up back in the sleepy and unthinking 1950s.

When the Wind BlowsPolitics: Power and the People gets to the nub of the matter with a display showing the development from satirical print to satirical comic.  As an effective way of dramatising a message, comics have been used by campaigning groups from the Suffragettes to the Anti-Nazi League. The Suffragette What a Woman May Be poster is worth a visit on its own (again, frustratingly, no picture). The impact of Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, seen and displayed here as an early graphic novel,  is undeniable.

V for Vendetta mask on a manequin in Comics Unmasked. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

V for Vendetta mask. Photography (c) Tony Antoniou

Some of the more recent comic treatments of our lords and masters truly have the power to make us wince.  The mask created by Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd for their V for Vendetta comic strips of thirty years ago and latterly adopted by the Occupy movement is a ubiquitous presence on mannequins throughout the exhibition – this is genuinely all quite anarchic.

Not strictly relevant (and something I just now chanced across in my doctor’s waiting room), but fascinating to note that Alan Moore these days lives without internet connection, mobile telephone or even television signal, preferring to remain outside the human Petri dish and watch from the outside how the rest of us are mutating under the influence of too much information.

Northern Looking Glass. (c) British Library.

Northern Looking Glass. (c) British Library.

It was in the Politics section that I found what we tend to regard as the first comic proper in the modern sense, The Glasgow [later Northern] Looking Glass of 1825-1826, produced by John Watson of George Street, Glasgow.  I actually knew of this as Watson also lithographed a few maps.  He features in “British Map Engravers”, where we rather primly refer to the Looking Glass as a ‘caricature journal’.  Highly satirical, I’m pleased finally to have seen it.

Torrid Erotic Art, 1979, (c) Erich von Götha - Robin Ray

Torrid Erotic Art, 1979, (c) Erich von Götha – Robin Ray

The next section is given a parental guidance warning and is hived off in a corner so that children and young persons can swiftly be escorted past.  I’m frankly dubious about how successful a ploy this may prove – labelling the corner Let’s Talk About Sex in large letters and priming it to give off a hot pink glow could possibly be counter-productive.  At this point, possibly fortunately, I had mislaid my spectacles, so I can’t tell you too much.  I misread the title of this magazine as HorridSordid and Torpid before getting it right – although I’m not entirely sure I was altogether wrong.

Part of the exhibition are previously unheard recordings of the 1971 Oz obscenity trial, which created such a furore.  It seemed at the time like a full-on clash between the generations, that the full weight of the establishment was being thrown at any kind of freedom of expression, that all the butterflies were to be broken on as many wheels as it took.  Looking back, I’m not sure that Oz would find so many defenders now – certainly not the Jailbait of the Month feature.

Spring Heeled JackComics are really all about heroes and superheroes – and here they are in the Hero with a Thousand Faces section.  But yet again all is not as straightforward as it seems.  The antecedents, in this country at least, are very clearly not the heroes but the anti-heroes of the penny-dreadfuls – Dick Turpin of course and Spring-Heeled Jack, The Terror of London.   Slyly inserted in the Batman display is a Victorian image of Jack – arms outstretched to the London rooftops, cape unfurled – you see what I mean.  I’m not sure whether it fully comes across in the exhibition, but Adrian makes I think a valid point in pointing out that British comic heroes often have a dark, or at least a vulnerable side, rarely evident in their American counterparts – and where these aspects do become part of an American character, there are usually British artists and writers involved (there was something of a British invasion of the American comics industry in the 1980s).

The final section is called Breakdowns: The Outer Limits of Comics.  Somehow both John Dee and Aleister Crowley are summoned up as part of continuing tradition of comic magic.  It seems a tenuous connection at best, but maybe I missed something.  The curators were by now off into raptures about twenty-first century interactive hypercomics on the internet and I was getting lost.  They have apparently been able to resurrect the long-defunct and near legendary Club Salsa internet comic from 1996.  I take their word for it that this is good news.

Original artwork for Tank Girl, 1995 (c) Jamie Hewlett

Original artwork for Tank Girl, 1995 (c) Jamie Hewlett

There is a great deal more to the exhibition than I have suggested.  Much of it relatively modern, essentially curated by fans and practitioners (John Harris Dunning and Paul Gravett) for fans.  If the original artwork for Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl – not so remote descendent of Beryl the Peril – or Judge Dredd’s film helmet is your thing, then you won’t need me to persuade you and you will already have booked up for some of the allied talks by the modern masters.

But even if you are an old boy like me,  who hasn’t read a comic in fifty years or more, you will find this exhibition thought-provoking and full of interest. Some of the graphics are stunning. Some of the feeling behind them is simply not to be ignored.  It’s on until August – off you go.

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