For this blog I’ve decided to have a ‘show and tell’ look at book collecting. I’ve already written about this strange condition elsewhere but here I just want to show you a few books from my library. There are three kinds of book in my house. The first are merely books to read: spines broken, pages annotated and falling out etc (don’t worry, I do treat books with respect, but when I read and enjoy a book, I do it pretty deeply). The second kind are what I’d describe as trophy books – they must be read with care, but I mainly have them for the talismanic aura they emit. The final kind are books that, regardless of their monetary value, I would never part with and will keep until I can no longer possess them. The books I want to talk about today are of the second and third kind – I talk about the first kind too often as it is.
First up are some trophy books, all bought fairly recently. One was pretty expensive (guess which one!) and the rest were all acquired cheaply. They all tell a ‘meta-story’ beyond the text contained in their pages. That is to say, they tell the author’s tale, but they have a unique narrative all of their own.
The picture to the left is the inside of a book entitled Nietzsche and Art by Anthony Ludovici (1911). This book is in terrible condition and I bought it at the Amnesty Bookshop in Newcastle. Do you think I’ll ever read it? I doubt it very much. So why did I buy it? Well, look at who it belonged to! The pen inscription says ‘Robert Nichols 1941’ – that’s Robert Nichols the WW1 poet. But more than this, look at that amazing modernist bookplate! It says ‘Curved is the Path of Eternity’ (a quotation from Nietzsche) followed by the initials ‘S. J. H’. I wonder who that could be? The signature on the rather homoerotic image is ‘Sidney Hunt’. Sidney James Hunt was an avant-garde artist and poet, particularly highly regarded for his ‘Uranian’ bookplates. Not only is this one of his bookplates, it’s his own! Perhaps this very book inspired him to make this bookplate, who knows?
On the topic of Uranian associations, here’s a copy of Baron Corvo’s (Frederick Rolfe, or Frederick Baron Corvo) 1901 short story collection In His Own Image. If you’ve never heard of Baron Corvo, I cannot possibly introduce him and his utterly un-categorisable work here, but getting interested in his work can become an all-consuming mania, it’s like a disease. The book itself has a beautiful Jugendstil cover pattern (meaning that this is one of 500 copies published for ‘sale in India and the Colonies’). I bought this on Abebooks where is was described as having ‘inscriptions by the previous owner, 1919’. It was only when it arrived that I realised it was more important than the bookseller suggested.
The previous owner was Philip Sainsbury (1899-1936), one of the founders of both the Tavil and Cayme Presses, which published a lot of work of ‘Uranian’ interest. He was the nephew of Henry Scott Tuke, an artist known to, and admired by, Baron Corvo. I’d call that a pretty decent association copy.
The final ‘trophy’ book to show you is a rather unassuming little pamphlet entitled Airplane Dreams: Compositions from Journals by Allen Ginsberg (1969). This one was quite expensive, but then anything Beatnik-related is nowadays. I saw it in a bookshop in Antwerp and pounced on it. I’m not much of a collector of Beatnik material, but buying this I was satisfying an adolescent admiration of mine for Ginsberg’s poems. Here’s the title page:
The ink inscription is in Ginsberg’s hand, plus the charming sun and sunflower doodle. It reads ‘For Willem Roggeman in thanks for his attention and care for the poetry of me and friends, kind friendly hours faraway anonymous blue sky in your head. Allen Ginsberg / Rotterdam 24 June 1973’. Willem Roggeman is a Flemish poet and an erstwhile translator of the Beats into that language, so that’s what Ginsberg is thanking him for. Additionally, it was signed in Rotterdam, at the international poetry festival there in 1973.
The next three books all belong to my third category – the books I’d grab if the house was burning down (and catastrophic fire has something to do with one of these). These books all mean far more to me than the words they contain. First is yet another book I’ll likely never read, it’s called A Record of the Great Fire in Newcastle and Gateshead and it was published in 1855 (I can’t find an author on the title page).
Why do I have this rather abstruse local history book? It came from my late grandfather’s extensive local history collection. He was obsessed with anything to do with Gateshead, particularly the Police (being a retired ‘Bobby’ himself). When he died most of his books went to Barter Books in Alnwick, because no-one in the family really shared his interest. But I kept back one as a memento. He was not someone, like me, who got excited by rare books, but he said this one was particularly rare and I seem to recall him paying a lot of money for it. But the ‘Great Fire’ of 1854 was something that was always in his mind, for some reason. He had images of it on the walls too. Perhaps he saw the tragedy in it as well as the way Gateshead and Newcastle came back stronger than ever in the late 1800s. He also used to talk about being cremated more than was healthy – and look, inserted into the pages of this book as a marker there’s a ticket stub from the 1948 Olympic Games in London. This belonged to my other grandfather, and which I kept as a souvenir. Both of them are now in what W. S. Graham so uncomfortably called the ‘burny burny’.
Death plays its part in the other two remaining books I have here. The first is a cute little copy of A Shropshire Lad by Housman. The book is not rare, nor valuable. But it does have two interesting associations (in addition to my own immense sentimental attachment to it). Here’s the front pages:
In beautiful small script it says ‘William Soutar’ and has the magical date of high modernism ‘1922’. It also has the ownership signature of ‘Douglas Young’ who must have been gifted it by either Alexander Scott or Soutar’s father, after Soutar’s untimely death in 1943. Both Soutar and Young were celebrated Scottish poets attached to what is today called the ‘Scottish literary renaissance’. Soutar was of the ‘first wave’ vanguard, and Young was from the ‘second wave’.
Much as I love these inscriptions, it’s not why I treasure the book, at all! It was given to me by Jennie Renton, the editor, bookseller and writer who runs ‘Main Point Books’ in Edinburgh. It belonged to her late husband Richard Browne and she passed it on to me. When I first moved to Edinburgh in I think 2008, I began haunting bookshops and collecting books, rather than just reading and then shedding them. I quickly became friendly with Richard Browne who was often to be found manning a previous, smaller incarnation of Main Point Books, before they moved premises across the road. I must have said to Richard one day that I wasn’t really looking for rare books to collect, I wanted books with a story, books that had belonged to someone special, for instance. That’s when he showed me that little copy of A Shropshire Lad. I didn’t know who Young was, but I’d definitely heard of Soutar. I tried to cajole him into selling it, but he was adamant – not for sale, too precious. He locked the book in a drawer and I never saw it again until last year when I went to visit Jennie to give her my condolences after Richard’s death. Suddenly she said ‘do you like Housman?’ Not a question I’d been asked before, but I said I liked his poetry fine. Out from the back of the shop came that same little book. What’s more Jennie didn’t even know I’d seen it before. It’s genuinely eerie how things turn full circle like that – Richard effectively kick-started my interest in books and now I own a book he treasured so much.
And finally, I reserve my most sentimental attachment for this copy of The MacDiarmids: A Conversation, below.
It’s a rare little pamphlet that was made by Duncan Glen and released in a limited edition of 55 copies, all signed by Glen and Hugh MacDiarmid. I am a very keen MacDiarmid collector, I have a lot of his oeuvre – in fact, he’s probably the one name I seriously collect. My late and deeply missed friend the poet Alexander ‘Sandy’ Hutchison knew this and he presented me with this very copy back in 2014, when we were in Whigham’s Wine Bar on Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. I recall that Sandy had read the previous day, alongside David Harsent, at the Edinburgh Book Festival. He was in high spirits and gave me this as a present (he was very generous – this isn’t the only instance). Here’s the front page, it has an inscription from Duncan Glen to Sandy in 1988 and then one from Sandy to me in 2014 (the ‘fizzy water’ was a reference to the fact that I wasn’t drinking). It’s a tangible reminder of a lovely day and a loveable man. Perhaps I will gift and dedicate it to someone else, putting another inscription in it mise en abyme as on an heraldic crest. But I’m far too attached to it for now.