Good to be out and about in a sunny Olympic London last week – cheery smiles, expectant people following bright pink signs to unlikely events, gamesmakers appropriately decked in the Queen’s racing colours – all of that. Back to the leafy and suburban West London heartlands of my schooldays. Headed towards Chiswick, there to call first on Julia Elton (Elton Engineering Books).
I found Julia deep in piles of notes about gas-engineers garnered earlier in the week from a repository in the north of England (she is at work again on the Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers for the Institution of Civil Engineers). We soon fall to talk of teasing biographical information out various archives and in particular the scope and problems offered by the newish online British Newspaper Archive – new favourite toy, certainly – but a brute to penetrate and work with.
Hard not to warm to someone who once co-organised an exhibition called The Triumphant Bore (to mark the 150th anniversary of Marc Isambard Brunel’s Thames Tunnel). Our various researches overlap to a certain extent – engineers both made and needed maps, and mapmakers like William Faden were active members of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers in the eighteenth century (Julia is an Honorary Member now). How pleasant to have coffee in the garden and talk to someone who understands the premise, purpose and by-ways of biographical research. The underpinning of theory with solid fact. And we talk not just about a past that needs preserving, but our present network of mutual friends and colleagues – colleagues in her case often dating from her early days of training under the great Ben Weinreb. We touch too on the stereotyping of women and women booksellers. We reminisce.
Julia is a past-president of the Newcomen Society – her presidential address was entitled A Light to Lighten our Darkness (on the development of lighthouse optics after the death of Augustin-Jean Fresnel in 1827, when his invention of the refracting lens was still in its infancy – a period until then unexplored). The research drew extensively on her collection of nineteenth-century lighthouse books in French and English. She is also an elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. We muse on the differences between the scholar-bookseller, the academic and the rare book librarian – and mourn that the world is so often tempted to dismiss the best of our trade as mere dealers (the ‘money-grubbing’ goes without saying). Plainly not so in her case – a credit and an ornament to our profession. (And now signed up to give us a seminar at Senate House next year).
Increasingly warm as I stroll up towards Acton to visit Dr. Richard Ford (Richard M. Ford Ltd.) A good morning this for scholar-booksellers. I find Richard almost entirely submerged in his utterly fascinating stock of autograph letters, historical documents, printed ephemera and pamphlets covering almost every topic under the sun – art and architecture, book trade history, economics, education, history, law, literature, military and naval history, music and theatre, natural history, printing history, religion, royalty, science, medicine and technology, social history, travel and topography – you name it. Uniquely surviving fragments of history elegantly described and ready for dispatch to fitting and permanent homes. And the filing system seems to work – there laid out for me is an old catalogue produced by the largely forgotten but once impressive bookselling firm of Henry Young & Sons of Liverpool (to be the subject of a future post).
We somehow become involved in a discussion about a highly abusive e-mail Richard has received from a frighteningly ignorant overseas institution and the intricacies and anomalies of the VAT Margin Scheme. Exhausting work – we adjourn to The Rocket for a light and temperate lunch. Richard remembers with affection and great gratitude his early years with the late Peter and Margaret Eaton (how much we miss them) – enough absorbed in his early years to ensure a lifetime career in dealing in curiosity and fascination. Despite all the vicissitudes, despite a banking and regulative framework wholly hostile to any small business, still no better job in the world.
Richard drops me back down to Chiswick High Road and I head in search of Foster’s Bookshop – the original family business which has given us both Paul Foster and Stephen Foster. Safely found – this must be the oldest shop-front along the entire (and considerable) length of the High Road. A very jolly and topical window display of sporting books. Stephen away on well-deserved holiday, but his charming assistant gives me free rein, claiming to have heard all about me from a former employee who lives locally (obviously rather rattled by this).
The sort of shop every high street should have – crammed with goodness, books you would like to own in every corner. But the fact that so few high streets do is testament to the amount of unremitting work required to make this sort of shop work – let alone make it look easy, as Stephen does both here and in the Bell Street shop in Marylebone. Quickly scoop up a Betjeman, a Milne and an Aldous Huxley. A thoroughly, thoroughly, enjoyable day.