Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Percival Skedgell

Many thanks to Sam Jordison for mentioning this blog in his books feature for The Guardian - "The Precious Unprinted Contents of Books". Thanks to Sam, the cult of Derek has increased tenfold and I predict that by the middle of the century, he'll have more followers than the Church of the SubGenius.

In the Guardian blog article, Sam writes: "Marginalia and forgotten mementoes are often squirreled away inside conventional books. What will become of such treasures in the age of the ebook?"

In spite of my day job, I'm not completely against ebooks. I can see that they make sense if you're a student who needs several dozen weighty textbooks, or a Dan Brown fan who consumes a couple of paperback thrillers a week during the commute to work. Not all books are sacred. Disposable books are well-suited to an ephemeral medium.

However, the books that you care about - the ones you hope to read again and pass on to your loved ones (who will then give them to me), should be printed on paper. Bookworms, mildew and acid notwithstanding, books last - particularly the older ones. Kindles are vulnerable. They depend on an infrastructure that provides electricity and transmits and decodes digital information. Can we automatically assume that this infrastructure will continue to exist? Will our civilisation become the first one in human history to endure?

Just to be on the safe side, let's keep printing books on paper.

My work involves sifting though thousands of charity shop rejects in search of titles that are worth selling. In the last year I've found a 1590 Bible, a signed first edition of Siegfried Sassoon's "War Poems" and copy of "What Katy Did Next" signed, somewhat improbably, by Enid Blyton. It's amazing what people throw away.

However, even more than the books, I love the ephemera that I find in them: photographs, pressed flowers, letters, a 1930s London Underground ticket, a list of rules for borrowing library books aimed at the "labouring classes", a Wartime guide to growing your own vegetables, or an enigmatic message scrawled on a book's endpaper that says "Nothing you say will set the house ablaze".

Each item, however trivial, is a tantalising piece of evidence from a forgotten life. I'm fully aware of the irony of praising the virtues of the printed page on a blog, but the two mediums can be complementary and I love the fact that the internet allows me share things that would otherwise have been lost.

Like this:

This is a novel from the 1970s, written by a man with the wonderful name of Percival Skedgell. You won't have heard of it because there is only one copy in existence. If the ebook is at one end of the spectrum, this unique, handwritten novel is about as far as you can go in the other direction.

I've no idea how good the novel is, as the handwriting is so small that I feel like Donald Pleasance in The Great Escape. However, it looks like a fantasy novel - not my favourite genre, but I am intrigued.

The book is a work of art, painstakingly written and bound (let's ignore the odd Tip-ex mark), with hundreds of pages of text. Amazingly, it was almost thrown away.

And who is, or was, Percival Skedgell? I have found one reference to him on the Coventry University alumni website:

"The second oldest in my class was Percival Skedgell at 25, from Dartmoor. He moved to Portsmouth to illustrate for the Navy."

Not much of an obituary, if he is actually dead. The only other reference that I've found to a Percival Skedgell is an obituary from 2008. Can there really be more than one Percival Skedgell?

I can't sell the book, so I'm hanging on to it in the hope that relative of Percival's will find this blog during a Google name search, If you're a Skedgling, the book is yours.

P.S: Dec 2011 -There is a happy ending to this story. After its close encounter with oblivion, Percival Skedgell's book has been reunited with a member of his family.


Martin said...

Many moons ago, I went through a stage of writing to famous names, about anything and everything. To my surprise, I generally received a reply.

On my woefully neglected bookshelf, are books containing some of these replies. Usually in the form of a slip or card, I have Keith Waterhouse, Stanley Holloway, Robert Morley, etc, etc. So one day, they'll be falling into the hands of someone like your good self.

Helen Brocklebank said...

I can't help but be terribly sad that someone gave Percival Skedgell's book away - I'd like to think that if I'd gone to all the trouble of creating an entire book by hand, someone might hang onto it, out of sentiment.

Delighted you got such a lovely plug in the Guardian- well deserved. Your blog is always such a wonderful treat.

Caroline said...

What a pity I'm not a Skedgell ....

Steerforth said...

Thank you Mrs Trefusis - I'm hopeless at promoting this blog, so it was a lovely surprise to see the visitor stats shoot up (I'll ignore the rapid descent afterwards).

Martin - although I wish you nothing but health, my house clearance wraiths are now on alert, eyeing your book collection with hunger.

Caroline - perhaps you're from the van Skedgell branch of the family. If nobody claims this book with a year, it's yours.

Sam Jordison said...

What a nice blog to see upon return from a road trip... I hope the Skedgell mystery resolves itself. The book looks incredible...

Steerforth said...

A road trip? Anywhere interesting?

Rebecca said...

hello, I hope i'm not too late> i was an old scoll friend of Percival skedgell's daughters in Portsmouth. Do you still have the book? I am in contact with one of them on facebook. If you do I'm sure she would love to have it.

Steerforth said...

I'm pretty sure it's still there - I certainly couldn't throw it away. I just hope nobody else has. Could you send me your email address and I'll check when I'm back at work on Monday?

It would be wonderful if this book ended up with his daughter (unless she's the one who chucked it out in the first place!).

Steerforth said...

Morning morning - yes, I still have the book, so email me at steerforth@live.co.uk if you want it.

David Skedgell said...

Thank you so much for sending my family the book. It is of great interest to us all. It is great to find a piece of family history like this and also a person so kind and willing to pass it on to us. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I have a book by Percival Northcott Skedgell called The Last Gold from Dartmoor, volume 4. It's a printed book written in 1973/4. I am struggling to find out any information about it.

Unknown said...

I'm sure I worked with Mr Skedgell in the mid-late 80s. The unusual name and being an illustrator for the Navy is just too precise to be coincidence.

When I knew him, he worked as a designer/illustrator for Air Technical Publications (MOD) in Glasgow, creating illustrations for posters and manuals for RAF crew. He was known as Percy, not Percival, by his colleagues.

There was an apocryphal rumour that he worked for a short time with Hammer films, not long before they put up the shutters, but I never confirmed this with Percy.