Friday, February 26, 2010

Found today in a book called "Fire!"

"I Margaret Grey do swear never to ask for money of my husband to support me. 23.5.82"

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lost and Found

The last two days' deliveries have yielded some superb discoveries. After writing about Diana Dors a few days ago, I was excited to discover this kiss and tell memoir:

"I've been a naughty girl!" declares Dors, giving a little frisson of excitement to vicars, bank managers and headmasters all over the country. The title's great too - if you like tabloid-style puns (and I do). Unfortunately, this book hasn't joined "Testament of Youth" in the pantheon of great biographies that never go out of print.

Next, a poem that I found on a folded-up piece of paper inside a book:

I love you Tim with all my heart
I know this full well
In poetry they say thou art and the rest can go to ****!
Lets cut yab (?) and say to you that I wish you liked me to
Also lets say that you are fab and better than doctor who
I love you true and I hope that you realize it
If you don't like it and really despize it
I shall get my brother on to you and you
will regretize it.

To think that I almost threw the piece of paper away, unaware of its hidden treasure. I don't know when it was written, but "fab" had become passé by the mid-1970s.

I wonder if the author "regretized" writing this poem?

On a slightly more exalted note, another book yielded this leaflet, with a beautiful woodcut by Robert Gibbings:

I'd never heard of Robert Gibbings, but apparently he was an Irish artist who was a colleague of Eric Gill. I've looked Gibbings up on Google images and there are some stunning engravings and prints.

On the subject of illustration, every since I wrote about Victorian colour printing technology, I have discovered around a dozen nineteenth century books with plates that seem far ahead of their time. This is the frontispiece to an 1874 copy of "The Heir of Redclyffe":

The bold, vibrant colours are very impressive and haven't deteriorated with age, unlike this photo:

The fashion suggests 1971-73 - maxi dresses with puffy sleeves were a relatively short-lived fashion. I love the contrast between the glamour of the dress and the bland, suburban setting: the television ariel cable disappearing into the window with nylon net curtains, the patchy lawn and half-broken fence.

It reminds me of some photos a friend used to receive from his penfriend - a girl in Nottingham.

She liked to design and make her own clothes and would create costumes that made Steve Strange look like Man at C&A. Once the outfits were complete, she'd put them on and have her photograph taken. When I saw the pictures, I always used to notice the contrast between the glamour of the clothes and the drab setting: the front room of a council house, with a gas fire in the background, a faded Hay Wain on the wall and a complete absence of books.

I wonder if there were any bookless houses in the Socialist paradise of the Soviet Union?

My Cyrillic's a little rusty, but this picture clearly says that all's well in the Motherland: the wheat quotas have been met, the five year plan is on track and Utopia is just around the corner.

In fact, this is just a school textbook for young children, with lots of pictures like these:

I couldn't find any illustrations of gulags, enemies of the people and bread queues, but many other aspects of Russian life are represented in this book and apart from a few pictures, it's as if the Revolution never happened.

How do I get from Russia to the King of Greece? I'll take the Orthodox route. The next item is the front of an envelope I found in a book:

It isn't every day that you find correspondence to the king of Greece. The letter is from a Mormon, warning the King about World War III and World War IV. I have no idea why the Mormon felt that it was so important to warn the king of Greece, but he made a bad choice, as Constantine was deposed in a coup a year or two later.

I can't think of a link from the King of Greece to this photo, although the baby does have a regal bearing. His name is Maxwell Craig Barton, born just over 90 years ago on February 6th 1920. It's possible that he is still alive.

Finally, glasses. I think that some women can look incredibly sexy in glasses, but I'm not sure if this is one of those occasions:

Thicker frames might have done the trick and perhaps an outfit that was less Little Bo-Peep, but fashions change and today's Diana Dors is tomorrow's Katie Price.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Education, Education, Education"

In my office, there is a magical door that transports me into a strange, cold world, populated by a species who live in semi-darkness for most of their lives. It is an intimidating place, but I have to go there, as that's where the books are kept.

Sometimes I wait until after sunset, when the cacophony of noise is replaced by an eerie silence and I can enjoy hunting for first editions without risking being crushed under the wheels of a forklift truck. But most of the time, I have to enter the warehouse during working hours, negotiating my way around huge stacks of boxes as if I am part of a giant Tetris game.

Once I've found what I'm looking for, I climb the metal staircase that takes me back to warmth, sunlight and silence. I feel grateful and guilty.

The warehouse is another world. It is cold, dirty and uncomfortable, with a noise level that seems to reduce ordinary conversation to a series of shouted expletives. The staff are a mixed bunch, but most are young lads who have barely started shaving, but still seem to have at least one child.

Everyone smokes.

Two weeks ago I was given the go-ahead to expand my department and recruit two extra members of staff. I already have three brilliant graduates who barely required any training, so I decided to advertise externally for two more. Unfortunately, the word got out in the warehouse and I have received several internal applications.

I know why people are applying. They see my department as a "cushy number" and I suppose it is. We have chairs, windows and heating, which are something of a luxury in my workplace.

Unfortunately I don't think anyone actually knows what we do. The nearest someone came to the truth was describing our work as "data entry" (which was an improvement on the person who asked me what fiction was), but it still fell short of the mark.

It's a very awkward situation. I don't think I'm being that fussy, but I would like someone who can spell, knows that George Eliot was a woman and doesn't keep asking me to translate Roman numerals for them. But regretably there aren't many people in my building who tick any of those boxes.

It's strange, because most of the people I work with seem bright, funny interesting people who could be perfectly capable of doing a fairly straightforward job like valuing and writing about antiquarian books. Why are they leaving school without the skills needed to do this?

Sadly a lot of the external applications haven't been any better. Take this extract from a covering letter I received recently:

"i am currently avalible for immidiate start and have a good knollage of authors and different type of books which i think would be good to bring to the team and be a big help with the job."

Given that the job description asked for a high standard of written English, this sentence was quite breathtaking. I was tempted to write back, advising the candidate (in the kindest way possible) to at least use the spellcheck facility.

Most of the other candidates weren't much better. Is this the legacy of Tony Blair's "Education, education, education" policy, with its "literacy hours" and SATS tests? Who, or what is to blame?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Farewell Lionel Jeffries

The death of Lionel Jeffries has come as something as a shock - mainly because I had no idea that he was still alive.

The second surprise is that Jeffries was 83 when he died, which means that when he played the eccentric grandfather (pictured above) in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he was only 42 - a year younger than his on-screen son, Dick van Dyke.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a marvellous film and Jeffries was wonderful in it, but his lasting legacy must be two of the most perfect children's films ever made: The Railway Children and The Amazing Mr Blunden, which Jeffries adapted and directed.

The Railway Children is full of delights, from Bernard Cribbins' performance as Albert Perks, to Jenny Agutter's decision to remove her bloomers to prevent a train crash, but the highlight has to be the end of the film. I defy anyone to watch this The Railway Children without shedding a quiet tear.

However, my favourite has to be the hugely-underrated The Amazing Mr Blunden, which was filmed in 1971. The film's strength lies in the story, which is part ghost story, part murder mystery (with the obligatory children who have been plunged into genteel poverty following their father's demise). It has everything a child could want (apart from guns and talking animals).

But it's not just the story that makes The Amazing Mr Blunden so memorable. It's also the wonderful casting.

Before she became the rather odd Mrs Peter Sellers, Lynne Frederick was a fine actress and really carries the film. Laurence Naismith is also wonderful as the enigmatic Mr Blunden - the grandfather we'd all love to have. But the star has to be Miss Diana Dors:

Although Dors was once hailed as the English Marilyn Monroe, she relished her role as the hideous, evil old hag Mrs Wickens and really steals the show. She is the pantomime villain par excellence. Sadly, there doesn't appear to be a clip of Diana Dors as Mrs Wickens on YouTube, but here is a nice one that sets the scene:

With two such excellent films under his belt, you would have expected Jeffries' career to go from strength to strength, but instead it petered out. I have no idea why, but perhaps the obituaries will reveal the answer.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Under the Volcano

In the age of the internet, it is easy to become blasé about images that would have once created a stir, but there are some photographs that still induce a powerful, visceral reaction. This is one of the most stunning pictures I have ever seen:

It's not just the proximity of the photographer to the lava flow, or even the great technical accomplishment of capturing both the fiery glow of the magma and the faint stars in the early morning sky that makes this image a masterpiece. It's the contrast between the extremes of beauty and terror.

I've been obsessed with volcanic islands for years and four years ago, I decided to go to Iceland. Apart from one near-death experience, I had a really good time and saw some wonderful things.

If you ever want to get away from it all, Iceland is the place to go. It has the one of the lowest population densities in the world and it's possible to walk for hours without meeting anyone. Iceland also has the lowest biodiversity rate of any country and the defining features of the landscape are rock, water and sky:

Such an austere landscape may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I loved it. You can drink from the rivers in Iceland (and it is the best water you'll ever taste, I promise) and the purity of the air has provided relief for many asthma sufferers.

But what I also love about Iceland is that in spite of its benign exterior, the island is sitting on a geological powder keg. Steams pours out of fissures in the ground, pools bubble like cauldrons and occasionally, there are violent volcanic eruptions, some of which have resulted in hundreds of deaths.

At school, we are told that beneath the Earth's crust, there is a magma of molten lava. In Iceland you can almost feel it through the soles of your shoes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

New Bookmarks

It has been a fallow time for bookmarks recently, but I found a few good ones today.

The first is a touching portrait of four doting Victorian grandparents and their slightly jug-eared grandchild. I particularly like the large black "Sorting Hat" belonging to the woman on the right:

Next, things take a more sinister turn. What initially appears to be a rather bad modern poem, turns out to be part of some notes written by somebody who is spying on a couple:

I wonder what became of Chrissy and Marcus?

The next four photos are something of a mystery. Taken between 1903 and 1905, they are part of an album devoted to a place mysteriously known as "the Home". We are never told where the home is or what it's for.

The album contains a few clues, but they haven't yielded any results on Google. I'm not surprised. I spent a year in a children's home when I was ten - it was a life-changing experience - but until recently, my internet searches drew a blank. It's shocking to think that even places and institutions within living memory can disappear so easily.

Finally, some further examples of Victorian colour printing:

I've been told that my deliveries are going to increase during the next few weeks, so I shall be keeping an eye out for more enigmatic photographs and menacing messages.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Off Colour

This prompted gasps of horror in the office, yesterday:

Now out of print, but apparently strangely popular in the secondhand book world. However, our most popular title is Mein Kampf (I think that's Book 7 in the series).

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Victorian Colour

I'd always thought that colour printing was a 20th century invention, but I was wrong. Within the last few weeks, I've found several Victorian books with stunning colour plates. My most recent discovery is an 1871 title called Aunt Friendly's Book of Gifts.

The illustrations are remarkably vivid, but the book's main surprise is it's depiction of popular nursery rhyme characters:

In this picture, Humpty Dumpty isn't a large egg with limbs, but an ordinary boy (if wearing a red fez and green jerkin counts as ordinary). On another page, there is a conventional illustration for See-Saw, Margery Daw, but instead of Johnny, it is Janey who shall have a new master.

And in this plate, Little Bo-Peep is a boy. The remaining illustrations are quite conventional, but it is so unusual to see engravings from this time with colour:

The cliffs remind me of Sussex, but why is the young man carrying a crossbow?

I've found even earlier titles with good quality colour plates, which makes me wonder why it took roughly a century before colour illustrations became the norm rather than the exception.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Death of Steerforth

Actually I think it's probably just a virus, but being a man I feel duty bound to lie in bed and suffer from intimations of mortality. If I can't get in the mood, there's always some Shostakovich on my MP3 player. I defy anyone to listen to Six Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva without succumbing to the urge to throw themselves under the nearest bus replacement service. However, when I was 17 I couldn't get enough of it.

I miss the emotional highs of being a teenager - the delusion that you are the hero of your own novel, embarking on a great adventure. I didn't relish discovering that in reality, I was a minor character in a badly-written blockbuster. However, I don't miss the terrible angst and black depressions that seemed to appear from nowhere.

I agree with Shaw that youth is wasted on the young. Looking back, my teens could have been one long snogfest if I hadn't been so idiotic. For example, when a girl asked me if I was interested in going to Paris for a weekend, I concluded that she might fancy me, but there wasn't enough evidence to reach a firm conclusion. How stupid can you get?

Instead, I spent far too much time listening to Mahler and watching obscure European films (although I'll admit that the latter was partly for the gratuitous nudity).

In spite of this, I would give anything to recapture a feeling I had when I was 19, walking along a moonlit beach in Dorset. I have been to many far more remarkable places since then, but my responses are always tempered by a terrible self-consciouness: here I am on the edge of the Grand Canyon and I can see that it is awe-inspiring, but am I feeling what I should be feeling? In Dorset, I experienced a perfect moment; perhaps because I was surprised by joy (and top marks if you spotted the references to both C.S.Lewis and a Martine McCutcheon single).

I'm still have those wonderful serendipitous moments, but the moment I become aware, the bubble bursts. It's very annoying.

If you're wondering what the point to this post is, I'm afraid that there isn't one. These are the demented ramblings of someone in the advanced stages of Man Flu, with his whole life flashing before him. I do apologise.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Diaries of a Nobody

"I have no heart for camping. I would rather be amongst my books in some cottage."

Most of the books I deal with at work are titles that have failed to sell in charity shops. That might not sound very promising, but my employers have built up a successful, multi-million pound business selling books that used to be dumped on landfill sites.

Occasionally we also receive the contents of house clearances, where the owner of the books has either died or moved into an old people's home. It can be rather depressing wading through someone's book collection, realising that however erudite and well-read they were, this is how it ends.

On Monday we received a huge delivery of house clearance stock, most of which had a religious theme. The books were mostly conventional titles about Biblical history and the Gospels, but there were a few that were more off the wall. I noticed a recurring theme of lost civilsations and in addition to the usual titles about Atlantis, there was one book that tried to prove that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. Who owned this strange collection?

The answer lay in a box at the bottom, which contained the personal diaries of a local government officer called Derek.

Why were Derek's journals sent to us? A few of his diaries from the 1950s could have been mistaken for books, but not the thick, foolscap binders from the 1980s, with their typewritten pages.

These diaries were of no use to us and were almost binned, but I couldn't bring myself to throw someone's life into a skip. I rescued the box and later, started to browse its contents.

This is Derek in 1956:

If he looks like this in the mid-1950s, then we can assume that Derek was born at some point between 1925 and 1935.

When Derek's diaries begin, he is in love with Brenda:

Derek marries Brenda and they have a son. They also become Mormons, and the recurring theme in the diaries is Derek's personal battle against sin and temptation. This extract is from 1987:

"I was much troubled by evil dreams last night. I tossed and turned upon my bed in a way I have not done for many years. I dreamt that I was at the office and kept calling the female staff by titles and names that were blatantly sexist and in transgression of the County Council's instructions in this matter."

The Pooterish tone of the writing results in many examples of unintentional hilarity:

"On the way to Bristol this morning, Elaine Hamilton and I got to discussing her daughter's hay fever and I suggested that susceptibility to such things could be dependent upon the density of the hairs in one's nose. It was a novel suggestion that gave her some thought!"


"Eric the Barber, with his lady assistant, was sitting in his shop idle when I passed by with the hamster. He called out to me, so I went in and showed the scrap to them. Eric thought that hamsters would live amicably together in the same cage. I soon disillutioned him of that myth. I also told him that they were a great thing to have in the house if one were plagued by mice, since mice are scared beyond measure by hamsters."

Hamsters obviously play an important role in Derek's household:

"When we got back home, we said hello to Brenda, Richard and the hamster."

The Pooterish theme extends to the cast of characters: Mr Sunter and Mr Limpett, Oliver Dewsnapp, Gerald Ramsbottom, Mrs Moncrieff, Norman and Joan Farbass, Warwick Kear, Steve Fagg, Pam Bolloch, Julia Sleat and Malcolm Satchel. All real people.

But it would be so easy to save Derek's diaries just so that I could use them as comic material, whereas the truth is that the humorous moments are only a small part of the whole. Derek comes across as a decent man, trying to live the good life according to his beliefs. He is plagued by self-doubt and his journals bear witness to the struggles of an ordinary person who is regularly plagued by extraordinary feelings:

"I set my lip on fire the other morning. And on Sunday night I had a dream. I became acquainted with an attractive woman with curly hair, but undefined facial features. I was much tempted by her and took her back to a basement with rusty radiators..."

And what of the diary itself? Why did Derek faithfully maintain his journal for at least forty years?

"Why I keep a journal is often a mystery to myself. There is an inward compulsion - some would call it egotism - that will not rest until my life is recorded. Of course, the Keeper always imagines that any journal he keeps will be of inestimable value to future generations; will be a work of intimate revelations that will declare his glory to endless decades. And that is a foolish dream hardly worth the paper he has kept it on. "

I don't know what to do with Derek's diaries, however I can't bring myself to throw them away. But if not now, when?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010


Several months ago I discovered a tatty-looking French book, lying at the bottom of a box. The cover was damaged and the binding was in a terrible state, but I knew that I had found something special:

It's not just the illustrations that make this book so remarkable, but also the fact that it was published in 1890. I had no idea that colour printing was so advanced in those days.

If you click on these images, they may take slightly longer to upload, but I felt that illustrations of this quality warranted high resolution scans (and as these images are copyright-free, I hope they'll make their way around the blogosphere).

Both the book and its author remain something of a mystery, which I find hard to understand. How can a stunning title like this languish in obscurity? I'm sure the book has some value, but selling it is proving to be an uphill strugle.