Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I used to marvel at the ability of secondhand booksellers (or should that be sellers of secondhand books) to value titles at a glance. How could they know and, more importantly, how could they be so certain that my Tesco 'Bag for Life' of first editions was worthless? I'd been saving these books for years.

After five months in the antiquarian book world, I can now see how it all works. I don't always know which books are worth a fortune, but I can spot the crap a mile away.

If you're hanging on to any of the following books, don't even bother giving them to your local charity shop:

  • Any copy of Little Women published after 1880
  • English dictionaries
  • Book club editions
  • The Friendship Book (I'm assuming that readers of this blog won't have a copy)
  • Reach for the Sky, by Paul Brickell
  • All gardening books
  • The Bible
  • All books about the Royal family
  • Complete works of Shakespeare
  • Anything by J B Priestley
  • The plays of George Bernard Shaw
  • The Ascent of Everest, by John Hunt and Sir Edmund Hillary
  • Field guides to birds of Britain
  • All cookery books published after 1945
  • Victorian poetry, particularly Longfellow
  • All encyclopaedias
  • Novels by 'angry young men' like John Braine
  • Everything published by the AA and Reader's Digest
  • All Atlases published after 1918
  • Pelican paperbacks
  • The Pilgrim's Progress
  • Most books about classical music
  • Humour titles from the 1950s
  • Enid Blyton paperbacks
  • Art books with black and white reproductions of paintings
All worthless. Gather the kindling and build the fire! (But not the Bibles - we'll get letters)

Last week's local paper's classified ads section had several books for sale. One was a 1936 road atlas, on sale for £25. I presume that the instigators of this advertisement were operating on the premise that if it's old, it's worth something. But this isn't the case. You can buy a beautiful 1850s collection of Wordsworth poems for under a tenner. It's all about supply and demand.

I know that some people have reservations about destroying any book, but by throwing out the chaff, I'm able to save the wheat. It's literary eugenics (but not in a sinister, neo-Nazi way).

Since April, my project has saved 10,000 books from landfill sites, but it has also condemned at least 20,000 to the big recycling machine. If that bothers you, imagine a future where people are destroying thousands of Dan Brown novels each day, but rescuing first editions of Richard Yates and John Fante.

That can't be bad.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Crossing the Line

I still haven't succumbed to to Twitter phenomenon. My life is far too dull to justify 'tweeting' the minutiae of my day. However, if there was a visual equivalent, I might be tempted.

I wish that I could share an image I saw this week, as I walked from Lewes Station to my house. It was twilight and if I wanted to be pretentious, I could compare the stunning, dark blue sky to an Yves Klein painting. But I wouldn't do that.

I walked past Lord Asa Briggs's house and noticed that a light was on. I stopped and saw Lord Briggs sitting in his book-lined study, huddled over a huge pile of papers. The sight of the 88-year-old scholar deep in thought, oblivious to the outside world, seemed a model of how old age should be. I wanted to capture the moment and share it. But of course, even if I'd had my camera with me, it would be crossing the line to post a photo of someone sitting in the privacy of their own home.

I had a similar crossing the line moment earlier this week, when teenage girl's diary turned up in a crate of books. Aside from the fact that it was oblong and had pages, the diary looked nothing like a book, but that didn't stop someone from donating it to a charity shop. If you keep, or have ever kept a diary or journal, be warned: an unlucky encounter with the No.9 bus could see your intimate possessions ending up in the most unlikely places.

But to return to the point, I had a teenage girl's diary in my possession. It was neither interesting nor salacious enough to warrant reading, but there were a few amusing passages that could have been worth posting. However, judging by the bad English and texting acronyms, I realised that the diary must have been written very recently. To quote even a single sentence would be crossing the line. I threw it away.

But as with copyright and official secrets, time is the great healer and I have no qualms about posting some of the things I have found this week, from photographs to personal albums:

Unusually, this photo has something written on the back: Ros's 21st, Dec 67. This picture backs up my theory that for most people, the 1960s were more Austin Rover than Austin Powers.

A mystery photo, used as a bookmark in a 1906 publication on cake decoration called Advanced Piping and Modelling. I have no idea where this is.

We can laugh, but how many businesses and institutions give the poorest people a 75% discount these days? During my year of unemployment, I noticed that the concessionary rates for people on low incomes were underwhelming.

It could be argued that this man did more to prevent the creation of a united Ireland than anyone else. I don't want to steal any thunder from the Catholics and Presbytarians, but Edward Carson was the driving force behind the separation of Ulster from the rest of Ireland. He had his detractors (possibly including the person who drew a moustache on this signed photo).

The author of this album decided to remain anonymous, but it is dated 1921:

Life is mainly froth and bubble
Two things stand alone
Kindness in another's trouble
Courage in our own

The quote is unattributed, but I have discovered that it is by the so-called national poet of Australia, Adam Lindsay Gordon.

This page is more intriguing:

If to dream of you by night
and think of you by day:
If all the worship wild and deep
that woman's heart can pay,
If prayers in absence breathed
for you to Heaven's protective power;
If winged thoughts that fly to
you a thousand every hour
And imagination blending you
with all my future lot -
if this you call forgetting - then
indeed you are forgot...

Who is Lallie Charles? It seems that she is not the beautiful woman in the photograph, because Lallie Charles was the name of a photographic agency, established by an Englishwoman who was born in 1869.

Is the poem an original work? Has it been written as a love poem to the mysterious woman in the photograph? Is this woman a famous actress, or an intimate acquaintance? We will probably never know.

I have presented a series of random images, but I always feel as if there has to be a point to it all, so I usually end with some platitudinous epigram about time passing. Today I'll end with a quote:

"Sometimes I feel that life is passing me by, not slowly either, but with ropes of steam and spark-spattered wheels and a hoarse roar of power or terror. It's passing, yet I'm the one who's doing all the moving." - Martin Amis

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Banality of Evil...

I am now selling books in Germany. I've only been doing it for a fortnight, but I think I've already spotted a trend:

Week One: Mein Kampf

Week Two: Mein Kampf

Sadly, my research can't continue as we only had two copies in stock.

When I worked at Waterstone's, I received regular complaints from customers who felt that we shouldn't stock the English translation of Mein Kampf. I remember saying to one man that it was 'quite a complicated issue', but he wasn't interested in having a debate with a young bookseller and replied 'No it isn't', before storming off.

I haven't read Mein Kampf from cover to cover. I tried, because I wanted to gain an insight into the origins of Naziism, but it was dull to the point of being unreadable. Reading Hitler's views on history was like being stuck with a ranting, drunken loon at a bus stop on a quiet Thursday evening in February, or reading the Daily Mail. It was boring nonsense.

Ban Mein Kampf and it will acquire the kudos of forbidden fruit. It is banned in Germany, which is understandable, but wrong. I would like to do the opposite: make everyone read Mein Kampf and marvel at how such a banal, boring book managed to be so influencial.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Any Ideas?

Seen today, at a petrol station in Lancing:


What is ethical parking? And why does it have to be managed?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Tale of Sir Gerald Nabarro, MP

This evening I caught a few minutes of the news and had the misfortune to hear an excerpt from the Liberal Party conference. I know very little about their leader, Nick Clegg, but he managed to achieve the seemingly impossible task of making even Gordon Brown look interesting.

Unfortunately, Nick Clegg is the rule rather than the exception. In today's media age, politicians are subject to such a high degree of scrutiny that it encourages a culture of blandness and conformity. Where are the mavericks?

By coincidence, today I discovered an autobiography by a political maverick from 50 years ago, called Sir Gerald Nabarro. Apparently he was famous in his time...

I instantly warmed to Sir Gerald's aristocratic demeanor and ridiculous moustache. He looked like a man who said what he liked, regardless of the party apparatchiks, because he was probably rich enough to be incorruptible and had a strong sense of noblesse oblige.

However, a brief amount of research (i.e. Wikipaedia) reveals a different story:

Nabarro was born in North London, the son of an unsuccessful shopkeeper. He was born to a prominent Sephardic Jewish family but later converted to Christianity. He was educated at schools run by the London County Council, belying his later image as an aristocrat. On leaving school in 1930 at the age of 16 he enlisted in the Royal Army, in which he served for seven years, rising to the rank of Sergeant. In 1937 he left the army to work as a machine-hand, being swiftly promoted to be factory manager.

In the 1950 General Election, Nabarro was elected as an (MP) for Kidderminster, Worcestershire, which he held until 1964. He characterised himself as an old-style Tory: he opposed entry to what is now the European Union, was a proponent of capital punishment, and supported Enoch Powell. In 1963, during an appearance on radio, he said "How would you feel if your daughter wanted to marry a big buck nigger with the prospect of coffee-coloured grandchildren?" - remarks which were excised from a repeat of the programme the following week.

Comments that like that could have been the kiss of death to Nabarro's political career, but he continued to sit as a Conservative MP and was one of the most popular figures of the 1960s. Nicknamed 'The Abominable Showman', Nabarro claimed that 'Half of Britain swears by me, the other half swears at me.'

However, in 1971, Sir Gerald and his company secretary, Margaret Mason, were accused of driving the wrong way around a roundabout. Nabarro was eventually acquitted, but the general consensus was that he had been driving and encouraged his secretary to take the blame. It was hardly Chappaquiddick, but Nabarro found the whole episode very traumatic. A normally healthy man, he suffered two strokes and died at the age of 60.

You may think that this is leading up to a point, which could probably be something along the lines of conceding that however bland today's politicians are, at least they don't talk about 'big buck niggers.' But I was more struck by how Nabarro's bigoted comments and eccentric persona could only be the product of someone who was an outsider, insecure about their own social status. If Sir Gerald had been genuinely aristocratic, I doubt that he would have felt so threatened by change.

For all his faults, Nabarro did do the British public one inestimable service. He was responsible for the Clean Air Act of 1955, which bought an end to the dreadful London smogs and probably helped to save thousands of lives.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

That Riviera Touch

Last week I came across a box of truly horrible books, half-consumed by mould, with a forest of spores clinging to the cloth covers. I always try to clean books and have acquired an arsenal of weapons that include a paint brush, playdo, Mr Sheen, isopropyl alcohol and yellow dusters, but these titles were beyond help. I quickly consigned them to oblivion.

The next box didn't look very promising either, but one battered hardback caught my eye and I decided to have a look. It turned out to be a collection of stunning A4-size photographs of the French Riviera in 1900, collected by a woman named Alice Salmon. I Googled the name, but Alice Salmon has disappeared into the ether.

Here is a selection from Alice's album. Thanks to the size and quality of the images, I have been able to enlarge some of the details:

Nice, circa 1900. I have never been to the French Riviera, but in an ideal world I would go there as an aristocrat in the late-Victorian era. I would call myself the Comte de Lewes.

Another scene from Nice. The two men sitting on the bench are looking at the photographer:

Unfortunately we cannot see their features properly, but the above detail reveals a third man.

A night at the opera in Monte Carlo

Here is the beautiful Cascade de Chateau in Nice. If you look carefully, you'll notice two figures in the background:

This scene looks fairly mundane, but closer scrutiny reveals a disturbing figure..

Who is this sinister Scratchman figure?
(It looks suspiciously like Michael Jackson)

The album contains some wonderful images, but for me the whole experience is tinged with regret. I will never be able to visit the French Riviera in 1900. I will (probably) never know who Alice Salmon was and the figures in the photographs, from the unsettling Scratchman to the two curious gentlemen on the bench, will remain a mystery.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Photographic Evidence

A word of advice: never buy shares in the bookmark industry, if such a things exists. Nobody uses them. During the last few months I have come across one object that was specifically designed as a bookmark. The remaining 99% have been scraps of paper, newspaper cuttings, tickets, leaflets and photographs. I feel like a detective, sifting through pieces of evidence. Here are this week's clues:

On the back of this photo, someone has written "Early Mills. Witney. Aug 1938". It is a great picture and I'm not sure if this reproduction does it justice. Apparently welding excites some people. When I worked at the original Waterstone's in the mid-90s, a man stormed out of a Fay Weldon event because he'd been under the impression that the evening was about welding.

They say that there is someone for everyone and I think that this picture supports that view.

This is a weird photo. The distance and perspective makes it look as if two extremely small teddy boys are fighting in a tiny stream. This looks a little like one of those Victorian fake 'elves captured on camera' shots. Or maybe not.

It's sobering to think that this little girl has probably lived a whole life and died of old age many years ago.

A medal, but from whom and for what?

Finally, an enigmatic piece of advice that has a slightly disturbing undertone:

What does Roy do? Is there a laying on of hands, or a simple cup of tea? The one thing that life has taught me is to never trust people called Danny or Roy, so I would approach the caravan with some trepidation.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dancing in the Streets

Cities all over Britain are busy trying to redevelop and rebrand themselves. Newcastle-upon-Tyne now has its Millenium Bridge and Baltic Gallery of contemporary art. Birmingham has knocked down its Brutalist 1960s Bull Ring shopping centre, whilst Liverpool recently reinvented itself as the European capital of culture.

This is all very good, I'm sure, but there is a simpler and cheaper way to improve our cities. Get rid of the traffic.

Yesterday I visited the Mayor's Festival in London and spent a very pleasant afternoon drinking cider in the middle of London Bridge. Only a day earlier the spot where I was sitting had traffic hurtling across it. This weekend, cars and buses and been replaced with tables and sofas. The transformation was magical:

It was Jeremy Clarkson's worst nightmare: a car-free city taken over by people selling organic food, morris dancers and musicians. There was even a cow, which provided free milk. The countryside had come to the city and London was a lot better for it.

I was struck by different London felt. It seemed a kinder, safer place, but perhaps that was just the Welsh cider lulling me into a stupor of bonhomie. Old people relaxed on sofas, whilst children played with bales of straw. The normal sense of urgency - getting from A to B as quickly as possible and assuming that anyone who smiled at you was mentally ill - had been replaced by something dangerously close to philanthropoy.

Even if I take the good weather and convivial company out of the equation, I'm sure I would have still been impressed by the festival, as it showed us how radically we can improve our urban environments. Too many of us uncritically accept the status quo because we have no point of comparison. Events like the Mayor's Festival are a vital opportunity to open people's eyes.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Go Wild in the Country...

From a 1910 Welsh book that I found yesterday. It's this sort of thing that starts wars.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Richard Yates Podcast

I've just listened to a superb podcast about Revolutionary Road, which you can download here. The presenter Ramona Koval interviewed two guests: Blake Bailey, the author of a highly acclaimed biography of Richard Yates and Stuart O'Nan, whose 1999 Boston Review article about Yates has been credited with spearheading the author's revival.

Both Bailey and O'Nan made two very quotable comments about Revolutionary Road, which succinctly sum-up the novel's appeal:

"It's not about the American suburbs. It's about the terrifying gulf between who we are and who we wish we were." - Blake Bailey

"It's about that fear of being exposed for the average person that you are." - Stuart O'Nan

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Problem in Hand

It is just over four months since I began my new job. On my first day I was given a desk, a chair, a computer and 20,000 books. I was also told that there was no budget for my salary and the project had to be 'self-finacing'. No pressure there.

Fortunately, I have been lucky. Every crate of books I've opened has yielded at least a dozen really good books, some of which are worth hundreds of pounds (it's shocking to think that these titles used to be dumped on landfill sites) and the sales have been really good. As a result, I am now managing a growing department.

This is obviously a 'good thing', but I do have slightly mixed feelings. I love wading through crates of old books and as the sales increase, I seem to be spending an increasing amount of time filling in spreadsheets, dealing with enquiries and managing people. I'm not complaining. I have a really good team and it's great to see the project go from strength to strength, but I don't want to completely lose contact with the books, particularly gems like these:

These are all titles that I have found during the last seven days and I can't tell you how happy it makes me to find these gems. I particularly enjoyed The Backward Child, which includes a very useful chapter on how to deal with left-handedness. On a serious note, books like these are utterly chilling (my oldest son suffers from several problems and I've been dismayed by the attitudes of certain people in the teaching profession. I can't begin to imagine what parents must have gone through in the past).

The Onanism title was produced by a Catholic publisher (I'm not an expert on these matters, but if you're going to demand clerical celibacy, is it really fair to stop priests taking the law into their own hands?). Like being left-handed, the aim of this book is to make people feel bad about what comes naturally.

As for the two remaining jackets, they're a refreshing change from the predictable designs of modern book covers. They may be the work of madmen, but at least they're not dull.

As my department gets bigger, the number of strange book jackets and intriguing bookmarks I come across will diminish, but all hope is not lost. I appear to have recruited some like-minded peple who also appreciate the joys of garish covers and mysterious ephemera, so I hope that they'll furnish me (and you) with further gems.

Monday, September 07, 2009


"Midlist is a term in the publishing industry which refers to books which are not bestsellers but are strong enough to economically justify their publication (and likely, further purchases of future books from the same author. The vast majority of total titles published are midlist titles, though they represent a much smaller fraction of total book sales, which are dominated by bestsellers and other very popular titles." - Wikipedia

It used to be said that books were contra-recessionary items. The logic was that if people cut back on luxury goods, meals out and holidays, then this was good news for the book trade. However, judging by recent events in the book world, this is no longer the case. The recession has finally hit the publishing industry and there are rumours of an imminent cull of midlist authors.

Who are these midlist authors whose books don't really sell? I have struggled to think of some names and perhaps that's part of the problem. Besides, if I start mentioning names I'll probably get comments like this:

"X continues to write fiction, nonfiction, scripts for film, and this year a play of his was staged in London. He has won numerous awards and his novels continue to be reviewed with high praise. Notably, X, published this year in the States and, I believe, in the UK in 2006. He teaches at X University. He has a website. One of the best writers working today."

I have mixed feelings about the midlist. On the one hand, as a bookseller, I found it quite soul-destroying to be shown one novel after another by an author whose books never sold. Why were these titles being published? I often asked the sales reps and the answers I got ranged from 'library sales' to a hand-wringing 'I wish I knew, mate.'

But one the other hand, thank God that publishers support their authors. I remember when Ian Rankin was a midlist crime novelist, loved by his readers, but never reaching the bestseller lists. Rankin had been writing the Inspector Rebus stories for ten years before he became an 'A' list author.

Only a few authors are overight successes. Most take years to find their voice. The traditional role of a publisher was to recognise talent and nurture it. In today's climate, there is a danger that a culture of short-termism will rob us of some of the next decade's most interesting voices.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

In Praise of Folly

I found some wonderful books today, but nothing came close to the joy I felt when I discovered a collection of programmes for performances by the Southport Musical Society. I know nothing about Southport. I believe that, in spite of its name, it is in a place called The North, but that's as much as I know. However, when I saw these programmes I knew I'd struck gold.

The first thing that struck me was the comic aspect of amateur productions - the frustrated ambitions of bank clerks, car salesmen and secretaries, most of whom probably secretly harbour dreams of being discovered. These photos reveal the vanities of the cast:

David Ramsbottom - Perchance to Dream

John Holden - a pensive moment

June Davies - the 'Dancing Mistress'

Eddie Hamer - "One day..."

The dancing girls - all smiles, but viciously competing for a solo part in the next production

The Mayor - "I shall be dead soon, but the Society will endure."

It's easy to laugh. But as I looked through the programmes, I was also struck by the sheer professionalism of these amateurs. From the quality of the programmes, which were immaculately produced, to the ambitiousness of the productions, I soon found myself admiring David Ramsbottom and his fellow members.

In Revolutionary Road, Frank and April Wheeler mock the local amateur dramatic society and the small town attitudes of their neighbours. They are going to live in Paris and mix with intellectuals. In the end, their vain conceits make the Wheelers seem far more ridiculous than their am-dram contemporaries.

I like the fact that there are thousands of building society clerks, estate agents, retail managers and local government officers who have a secret passion for musical theatre. And instead of sitting around feeling frustrated with their mundane lives, they meet like-minded people and put on a show. I will never go to see their shows, but lots of people will.

Perhaps I'm going soft, but I couldn't help thinking of the wonderful ending to Middlemarch:

"...for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

(PS - A quick search has revealed that the society has indeed endured, although it now goes under the name of the Southport Amateur Operatic Society. One of the leading lights in the society appears to be the grandchild of one of the stars of 1954's Rio Rita)